The Truth about Empathy and Compassion

It’s time we all practice living with compassion. Let’s not confuse empathy with compassion. As when misunderstood you may be doing more harm than good.

But how many of them actually leads to acts of compassion?

Compassion, as they say, is empathy in action, and by definition literally means “to suffer with…” Whereas empathy is an exercise for you to vicariously feel someone else’s feelings or sufferings, and some even can feel for the plight of another species, such as an orangutan being displaced by forest clearing in Kalimantan, but compassion will compel you to do something about it.

But sometimes we might feel helpless, and perhaps confuse as to what exactly can we do to ease the sufferings we’re witnessing. Open your online feed and they could all potentially get you down, and even ultimately feel desensitized by it. After all, you have your own problems in life—and now you have to take on the burden of the world?  

Without Compassion

Anyone will tell you that any expression of goodwill is, well, a good thing. We wouldn’t want to live in a world brimming with apathy and bullying, now would we?

A friend once told me a story of how she was infuriated seeing a man who didn’t give his seat to an elderly lady who were standing in front of her on the train. She wondered how could a person be so heartless.

But then I asked her, “Did you ask the man to give her his seat?” She said no.

The range of emotions my friend goes through were noble and praise-worthy: she initially expressed sympathy for the elderly lady who looked tired (or was it pity?), then she showed empathy by identifying with the woman’s exhaustion and (possible) frustration for not having the simple convenience of having a seat at her daily commute back home.

Unfortunately, her empathy didn’t lead to an act of compassion, which would be for her asking the man if he could be kind enough give the woman his seat.

Yes, the state of empathy without action can potentially cause an emotional burnout, like what happened to my friend who risked being permanently disheartened by the situations she often sees in her everyday life, and that will usually end in constant grudging.

The Dalai Lama once said:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

It’s a recipe as old as time, going back as far as the parable of the good Samaritan, and even scientists have espoused the empirical impacts of the act of compassion to our general health and well-being.

I used to think that what the world needs more of is empathy. How else would you explain the fact that racial division or gender inequality in the 21st century are (inexplicably) still a thing? We’re not putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes enough, instead we merely see the difference in the colour of our skin, the shapes of our bodies, and the orientation of our sexuality.

At times, we can be too involved with ourselves: too busy taking selfies to notice the people that live in the exotic places we travel to; too focused on snapping pictures of our food; or, quite simply, too immersed with our own feelings or conditions that we don’t bother to ask about—or consider—other people’s feelings.

Another thing that’s happening in the modern world is that we’re too inundated with information and seemingly less time to process it all. Ironically, even though we’re often extending sympathies and empathize towards strangers on our news feed, we’re not actually doing it to people in our line of sight. Hence the familiar sight of eyes being constantly glued to phones.

And sometimes, we think that even if we finally transform our empathy into an act of compassion, how can our little act change anything?

Hard Wired for Empathy

Scientists claimed that empathy is an evolved trait coming out from the necessity of not only understanding the needs of the young but also out of the perception that when a group does well, the individual does well. They say that empathy is already hardwired into our brain. Simple case in point: watch an intense film where there’s a scene of violence or accident and we would immediately flinch as if we’re feeling the pain itself.

One research reveals that the anterior cingulate region of our brain lights up when we experience pain such as getting pinched—and that same part of the cortex will also light up seeing someone else’s pain. Physiologically we are definitely wired for empathy

The digital world, despite playing hosts to cynical anonymous users, has actually been a great medium to honed people’s empathy (and eventual compassionate feeling). The initially negative millenial term “slacktivism” (a portmanteau of slacker and activism) now are considered beneficial to help spotlight issues of the day (such as the recent Women’s March), and while the people who are retweeting or reposting the global causes might not get their hands dirty in protests and rallies but at least they’ve helped share the awareness and build a common purpose amongst global citizens.

Check out other unique discoveries that relates to empathy below…

People with high scores on empathy have better social and professional lives. They have more satisfying relationships because they’re able to feel—and ultimately understand—what their significant others are feeling, and at work empathy can be used to anticipate motives and persuading others.

Empathy level is affected by being around strangers. For some people, especially when they were young, being plopped amongst strangers can lead to increasing levels of stress, which may affect a person’s ability to feel the pain of another. However, doing an activity with strangers, such as playing a game, can significantly reduce the stress and increase empathy.

Animals can empathize, too! Several studies have indicated that animals are capable of empathetic reactions, such as chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, who used empathy as a tool to anticipate reactions and form social bonds. Even rodents feel it too: one study shows that rats refused to pull a lever to shock other rats—even after knowing that there’s a food reward after doing so. Other animals displaying empathy are elephants, birds (crows, ravens, and jays), cats, and, of course, dogs.

However, too much empathy can be stressful. As one 2013 study revealed, highly empathetic women experienced a stress level that was 5 – 14 percent higher than other women in the case study after they were shown images on social media of their close friends or family members injured, hospitalized, demoted or mourning a loss. For men, the stress level was 9-15 percent higher after seeing their friends or family members were demoted or accused of a crime. In these cases, it’s advised to establish emotional boundaries to prevent any negative effects to our mental health due to taking on the stress of others.

In a way, the effect of having too much empathy is kind of like what you feel if you procrastinate. We have all these ideas and things to do but we never put it into motion, which in the end resulted in feeling depressed, helpless or, worse, guilt.

But having an excessive amount of empathy is better than having none at all. And with encouraging—and consistent—nudge, naturally it could lead to something profound.

According to the book Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of Emotions by Dr. Neel Burton, compassion is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object.

“With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.”