We are affected by others’ emotions, as much as others’ emotions affect us. Mathieu Ricard, a French molecular geneticist turned Buddhist monk (and referred to in the media as the “happiest person in the world”) quotes, “Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering.” Empathy has also been observed in non-humans, with some studies suggesting that animals do also display the capacity to feel alongside others within their own species or community . Empathy is the ability given to us because of how our brains are wired, that allow us to place ourselves in another’s experience and consequently, feel – as closely as we can, another’s subjective emotion states. The new neuroscientific evidence in this area points to a complex system of brain wirings that facilitate this process. As a social species, the capacity for empathy – feeling alongside others, would enhance our tendencies for altruism, cooperation, caregiving and simply, being a nice member of our societies. Living in groups means that it is to our ultimate benefit to be sensitive towards others’ emotions – as a means to guide our own actions, and motivate us to help our fellow community members when the need arises .
It is important to distinguish empathy from sympathy. Empathy, as author Brené Brown puts it, is feeling with another person. In contrast, sympathy is feeling for the other individual. A key distinguishing feature between empathy and sympathy then, is the merging of two individuals’ emotions, so much so that empathizing means youend up catching and feeling another’s’ emotions as if they were your own. To cultivate empathy, then, is to make a conscious deliberate effort to connect with, relate to, and feel alongside the other person.
- Pay attention to non-verbal cues – The next time you interact with another individual, pay attention to their non-verbal cues. That is, pay attention to their tone of voice and rate of speech, words they use more frequently than others, hand gestures – these may all be cues to how they might be feeling. Try placing yourself in their shoes (not literally, of course) – but listen in as much detail as you can and think about how they must be feeling.
- Withhold judgment, do not sugar-coat others’ distress – In order to associate empathetically with another, Brené Brown suggests that we need to “connect with something within ourselves that knows that feeling.” This is not easy to do, she adds, since most of us are more apt to judge, or sugar coat another’s problems. Being empathetic then, also requires that we hold off judgments of the other person’s experiences. These experiences are not our own, and, while we may never be able to fully understand what the other person is going through, we at least, acknowledge their emotions and convey to the other party that when they are at their most vulnerable, that their emotions are being respected and heard.
- Practicing mindfulness has also been shown to be helpful in cultivating empathy, along with compassion. Mindfulness – the nonjudgmental, state of consciousnessness in which we focus on the present, may be helpful in facilitating empathic responses towards others. One study showed that after a 6-week mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program, participants displayed a better capacity to engage in perspective-taking – viewing others’ subjective experiences like their own. And why was this the case? The researchers suggest that mindfulness helps individuals “bear witness to a tremendous amount of suffering without being paralyzed by it. ” Mindfulness can help create an important buffer between our own personal distresses from others, while still allowing us to connect meaningfully with others.
 Preston, S. D., & De Waal, F. B. (2002). The communication of emotions and the possibility of empathy in animals. Altruism and Altruistic Love, 284-308.
 Decety, J. (2011). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3(1), 92-108.
 [The RSA] (2013, December 13 th ). Brené Brown on Empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
 Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self‐compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness‐based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359-371.