The brazen invasion of Ukraine is possibly going to be the most televised war since Vietnam. From the safety of our NATO-protected sofas, we watch Russian tanks invade Ukraine, Ukrainian men arm themselves, families seeking safety underground, women making Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Leaders are responding with economic sanctions, people protesting on the streets and some sending financial support.
All this and talk of a serious threat of the resurrection of the Cold War, and yet last week a news journalist in the UK asked the foreign minister “Why should we care?” The question may have been asked to elicit an educative response, nevertheless, it seemed a ruthless sign of the times.
In 2006, Barack Obama talked about an “empathy deficit” amongst us: “…we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us. When you think like this … it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”
The decline of empathy in society has been observed for a while. A study of 14,000 American college students in 2011 found they exhibited empathy approximately 40% less than their peers in the 1980s.
An article in Time magazine shows that narcissistic and individualistic traits in millennials are higher than in previous generations. The studies suggest that millennials often demonstrate less concern or sympathy for the misfortunes of others. Why is this ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes or, in Daniel Goleman’s (expert on emotional intelligence) words, “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives” important?
Because, without empathy, we are in danger of making ourselves extinct, as we are at risk of increased disagreements in our personal lives, more disputes at work and war on a global level. Empathy is an absolute, vital ingredient for individual, familial, community and world peace.
If it is so vital, why is it declining? The following hypotheses may explain why:
1. Research shows that people empathise easily when they see others’ suffering with their own eyes and, as suffering is seen online, it becomes more challenging to relate to.
2. Psychologists say that, as humans, we empathise more easily when we hear the story of an individual or a few people’s plight, and because we cannot envisage large numbers of people suffering, we empathise much less with a nation’s plight.
3. Neuroscience shows there is a distinct link between low empathy and high levels of anxiety. Anxiety and depressive thinking have substantially increased in the last 10 years, and so it would follow empathy decreases.
4. The more anxious we become as a society, the more we show our care through worry rather than actually, actively, empathising or doing something useful or meaningful. Think of the last time you told someone you were worried for them in order to show you care. We vicariously watch the progress of war as if this helps anyone; a better use of our time would be to collect donations for the Ukrainians, or to protest the war, etc.
5. Capitalism focuses upon one’s own profit and encourages competition. Some might say that empathy impedes profitmaking and competition and, therefore, is not a quality that is actively promoted or encouraged in today’s society and especially in the corporate world.
To ensure the world doesn’t become a darker place, we must increase our empathy, but can we actually do this? While there is some evidence that the ability to empathise is traced to genetics, it’s also true that empathy is a skill that can be increased or decreased.
Here’s what we can do to increase our capacity for empathy according to neuroscience and psychological research:
1. Build self-compassion. Pay attention to your inner critic and give them the boot! Replace your inner critic with a kind, loving, understanding voice. Gone are the days when a punishing approach was considered to be the best motivator. Actually, a gentle approach with ourselves will help us be the same for others. Everything begins with you.
2. Reduce anxiety and increase calm. Increased anxiety results in low empathy. Four ways to reduce anxiety are:
Once a day – breathe deeply in through your nose counting to three and then breathe out through the mouth, counting to five. Do this three times.
Once a day – ask yourself ‘what am I feeling’, ‘what am I thinking and what is happening in my body’ – in this way you connect with the moment, with the ‘what is’ rather than the hypothetical ‘what if’ thoughts.
If you have anxious thoughts, repeat them out loud in a Mickey Mouse voice or another accent. Keep doing this until you make yourself laugh and the anxious thought will lose its grip on you.
Ban the word anxiety from your vocabulary and focus on increasing calm in your life.
3. Walk in others’ shoes. Listen to others about what it is like to walk in their shoes, about their issues and concerns and how they perceived experiences you both have shared. Notice and appreciate the differences. Remember that there are many ways of seeing things and that your way is only one of them.
4. Disagree without debating. Have a conversation with someone you disagree with. But rather than debating or discussing the contentious issue, share your story of how you came to form your opinion and then listen to how they arrived at theirs. Then, notice the validity of their position. Empathy is about understanding!
5. Connect with others, don’t just comment on social media. Do more than write posts and write comments on social media; reach out and connect with people in your life!
6. Examine your biases. We all have biases that block our ability to listen and empathise. These are often centred around factors such as age, race, sexuality and gender. Don’t think you have any biases? Think again – we all do.
7. Do an act of service. Service – i.e., to do something for someone else – was considered an essential part of life at one time but not so much today. This could be regular or one-off voluntary work like a donation to charity or offering mentoring services to people junior to you, or smaller daily acts like carrying a neighbour’s shopping, allowing someone to pass in front of you in a queue or making a coffee for a colleague. The little things matter and have an impact on both you and the other person.
Finally, the more we practice empathy, the better we get at it and the happier we are as individuals and as a society. And then we are more likely to ask, not, why we should help, but how we can help.