The Empathy Habit

Do you want to know the secret to a happy life?

It starts with empathy.

Research in young adults has shown empathy is associated with heightened sexual pleasure and I’m sure the older crowd could benefit from the effects of empathy in that department too.

Have I got your attention now?

According to a recent study at Oregon State University, the ability to be empathetic may be partly genetic. “The love hormone” oxytocin plays a strong role in bonding and empathy, for instance. Those with two “G” variants of the oxytocin receptor gene tend to have better social skills.  At the same time, those with at least one “A” variant are apt to deal with stress less effectively and suffer from mental health issues. That’s a whole lot of science talk for “Empathy has some basis in neuroscience.”

Nonetheless, most anyone can learn empathy so we can’t blame not being kind on our genes alone.

How can you be more empathetic? Follow the “walk a mile in their moccasins” rule.

My mother is probably the most empathetic person I know. She taught me long ago to really consider another person’s perspective before laying judgement on them. By the time you’re finished feeling into their situation, you will have forgotten to lay judgement at all. So empathy is about looking at someone’s situation, trying to get their perspective and suspending judgement altogether.

It is incredibly liberating not to carry judgement around like an old sack of clothes. Imagine a world in which we did more loving and less judging.

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Have you ever experienced an empathetic listener, someone who feels into what you are saying without judgement or advice? You may not have noticed at the time why you felt so much better after talking to that person, but you know they uplift you every time. What you experienced was empathy.

It truly is the key to unlocking your joy.

Now there are people whom you may try to connect with who are simply not interested. You can be as empathetic as you want to be and they still won’t care. As Rick Hanson says in Buddha’s Brain (yes, I’m finally nearing the end of the book – it’s a great read!), you need to match the relationship with its true foundation. That means you might have a deeper relationship with someone you thought was only a casual acquaintance. Or you may have to disconnect from those who are toxic.

Either way being empathetic does not mean trying to change a person. It means being your truest self, celebrating what you and the other person has to offer and being kind. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to walk away. Sometimes it is to draw nearer.

How might you show empathy today?


  1. Willow

    July 28, 2012 at 12:47 am

    Thanks for those kind words, Christine. It isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it to foster understanding.
    Love, Mom

  2. Edwin Rutsch

    July 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  3. The Weight of Words « The Power of Slow

    August 20, 2012 at 4:11 am

    […] “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their […]

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