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A Day in the Life


The key to compassion; the ability to feel what another feels. How empathetic are you?

We have all been grateful for that person who really understood our pain. Some circumstance, an event, something distressing which has happened, and above all we need someone near who really understands, to whom we do not need to talk, because they just know. Equally, we have all rued the day when someone completely lacked empathy and made some crass comment or performed some utterly inappropriate action because they had not the faintest idea how we were feeling.

Researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: Affective empathy which refers to the feelings that we feel in response to others’ emotions which might be a mirror of their feelings or a sense of stress because of their fear or anxiety. Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to identify and understand others’ emotions. Empathy is deep rooted in our brains, and whilst it does not always lead to a positive response, it is generally the first move towards compassionate action. 

Empathy is very important to understanding others, but there can be a downside: when we feel the pain of others, we need to take care of ourselves so that others’ pain does not overwhelm us. But that aside, empathy is generally positive. It enables us to look beyond our own situation. People who are highly empathic tend to be less egoistic in their decision making. Through empathy, we may able to identify the consequences of our actions. Through empathy we are able to recognise how others see and do things and, as a consequence, learn from them. Some researchers think that human cruelty to others springs from a profound lack of empathy – not that a lack of empathy inevitably leads to cruelty, this is clearly not true, but that empathy provides a protection against cruel behaviour. 

Is it possible to teach or enhance a sense of empathy? Research studying the consequences of loving kindness mediation suggests that we can enhance our sense of empathy by focusing specifically on the responses of others and consciously giving space to observing and reflecting upon their feelings. So instead of only thinking about how we feel, we deliberately notice what is going on around us. 

How empathic are you? Tuesday was Empathy Day. Just for fun you might like to try this quiz (though reflecting upon your answers to the individual questions might be more fruitful than worrying about your final score).