Is empathy something we are born with or something we acquire?

In Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, he offers a scientific analysis of empathy and argues that while some are born more empathetic than others, empathy can be taught and cultivated. Beyond that, Zaki outlines how building empathy is the key to happiness and success both as individuals and as a society.

Encouraging Empathy
Think about toddlers. Emotions run high, tears flow frequently, and hugs are offered freely. Young people vacillate quickly between selfish behaviors and empathetic ones. A 3 year old who hurts a friend or sibling in a struggle over a toy is equally likely to cry along with their playmate out of guilt or empathy as to dig their heels in and hold their ground. Our reaction to and guidance in these incidents makes a difference. We can choose to lean in and teach them what it might feel like to be in their friend’s shoes (an empathetic model), we could turn away and let them figure it out for themselves (a pacifistic model), or even cheer them on for serving their own interests and “winning” the battle (a selfish model). As it turns out, how we react matters a lot in helping to shape the child’s journey towards or away from an empathetic mindset. As Zaki explains: “When empathy evolved, humans were enmeshed in close relationships. We had reason to care about almost everyone we saw. These forces pulled us toward empathy and made it easy. Now we are isolated, stressed, and drowning in animosity. We have more reasons to avoid empathy than ever.”

In a world that is increasingly self-focused, empathy is eroding in our society. But Zaki suggests that empathy is, for the most part, learned and can be built and strengthened like a muscle. The more we acknowledge and indulge our feelings of empathy, the more empathetic we will become. This cranks up the pressure on parents to instill a spirit of caring in their children from a young age.

Personalizing Empathy
Many of us give around the holidays. Stores, offices and schools offer drives, making it easy to drop off gifts or gently used clothing. These drives are important and swiftly, effectively serve the recipients of the designated organizations. But maybe that’s only one of the benefits. If modelling and inspiring empathy is our duty, does this type of giving also serve that purpose? If we, the adults, pack things up and drop them in a box, are our own children affected? How do we make the act of giving an act of empathy?

As my children have gotten older, I’ve searched for ways to get them more involved in giving opportunities. Children need to be able to own their participation and flex their empathetic muscles. I have found that Google image serves me well when we are participating in backpack, clothing, and gift-giving drives. If I search “8 year old boy” on Google image and print a picture of a child and assign him a name, my kids are much more likely to empathize with his needs than if we are just collecting for “kids who are less fortunate.” They will sometimes even guess about his interests and favorite colors based on the one (fake) picture they are given. We talk about how we think the child will feel when he receives the items and how his life might improve because of it. We can feel those evolutionary stirrings at work – these simple additional steps add empathy to the experience for all of us.

Enjoying the Rewards of Empathy
The act of seeking to understand the experiences and emotions of others rewards us with a greater sense of social and emotional well-being. In this respect, cultivating empathy has its kickbacks. Zaki writes:
“Decades of evidence demonstrate that individuals who empathize with others also help themselves: attracting friends more easily, experiencing greater happiness, and suffering less depression than their empathetic peers. When someone decides they don’t have the resources or energy for other people, they deprive themselves of those benefits.”
We have created lives where we decline social invitations in favor of retreating to our couches at home, scrolling through endless social media feeds of carefully curated lives.

We experience a disconnect between what is real and what is perceived. We click a like or dislike emoji on our friends’ social media announcements of engagements, births, job promotions, illnesses and deaths rather than taking the time to reach out in person or by phone to offer more sincere forms of congratulations or sympathy. We avoid eye contact with strangers, exchange rhetorical pleasantries and often don’t bother to learn the names of the familiar faces at the post office, grocery store or pharmacy. Being rude has become normalized and our human connections and empathy as a society have suffered greatly.

But if we look beyond those profiles and actually connect with the real people in our community, we find commonality in the ups and downs of life and feed our innate human desire for substantive and authentic connection. Per Zaki:
“I truly feel that the cultural forces that are pushing us apart are so vast and so prevalent that acting with empathy, and trying to connect despite them, is a radical act. It takes pushing back against something in order to reclaim that common humanity.”

So, if inspiring empathy is the key to humanity how can we make sure that we are doing enough in our own lives? It sounds like an overwhelming dilemma but it’s truly not that hard. To start, let’s make a more concerted effort to connect with those around us. Let’s put away our phones when we can, make eye contact with the people we pass on the sidewalk, have the hard conversations with our kids about the homeless people we drive by, the lonely old woman sitting alone at the bus stop, or the kid eating alone in the school cafeteria.

The more we explore true feelings, our own and others’, and make the effort to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, the more empathetic we become.