Sunday 18 March 2018

The thing is... Your 30-second guide to everything: Empathy

Illustration: Eorna Walton
Illustration: Eorna Walton

Emily Hourican

What: Empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. More cosily known as "walking a mile in their shoes".

Why: The ability to feel connected and close to others is the fundamental building block of society. That said, there is such a thing as optimal empathy; too little is obviously bad, but it turns out that too much is bad too, because it means you over-identify.

Why Now: Because empathy used to be considered a bit wishy-washy (real men don't empathise...) until its vital role in business was identified. And because it's on the way out. In 2006, Barack Obama told American students the country was suffering an "empathy deficit", and one major study shows our ability to relate to one another has been in decline since 1979. Empathy is the opposite of narcissism, which is on the rise. Blame social media. Blame the Millennials.

How: There are different types of empathy, because understanding how someone feels and actually caring enough to do something about it, are different things. Empathy can be learned by training yourself to listen and consider events from others' perspectives, but not very successfully, alas.

Who: Marcus Aurelius was an early adopter; Maya Angelou noted: "I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it." Facebook, which has created an 'Empathy Lab' to help its coders understand users; Heidi Klum, who is determined to teach it to her kids; artists and celebs in general like to see themselves as unusually empathetic.

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