The digital age has transformed our books, the way we shop, and the way we socialize. It’s far more likely for someone to talk over Instagram than to meet up for coffee. But now, more than ever, connection is important. We are in the midst of a “loneliness epidemic”, according to the former US surgeon general. More than 40% of adult Americans reporting that they feel lonely. This is a public health issue. “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
It’s clearly important that we connect, even if we can’t physically be with each other. “Just as human beings have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.” Connecting with people is important, and essential for our survival, contributing to both our health and happiness. As the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported, “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.”
Empathy is critical to creating long-lasting relationships. It allows us to connect and socialize in a deep, meaningful, and healthy way. Empathy is often coupled with sympathy, but the two are worlds apart.
Small Prefix, Big Difference
Sympathy is seeing someone in distress and feeling sorry for them. It’s a reaction. If you’re sympathetic, you wish to see someone do better or be better. But you’re not really making them feel better or understanding their plight on a personal level. We often hear, “I don’t want your sympathy.” And that’s because it has a negative connotation that borders pity.
Empathy takes sympathy up a notch. It’s most often described as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. But it’s much easier said than done. It requires you to first see “someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, shar[e] his emotions, including, if any, his distress.”
John Steinbeck said it wisely: “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” Similarly, Walt Whitman explained, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
The Impact of Empathy
Today, work/life balance is an important show of company empathy. Once people know their time is valued both inside and outside the office, it can “boost morale, engagement, retention, and productivity.”
Empathy is also a tried and true path to creativity. When you’re open to experiencing someone else’s world, you can discover incredible new things. You can also discover some terrible things. But it will make you better. Because when you can visualize what your customer needs, it’s much easier to be creative, whether you’re writing an ad for a billboard, crafting an insurance plan, or selling a sandwich.
The same principles apply to your relationships. If you can put yourself in your partner’s shoes, you will understand their world much better. Just acknowledging that something happens often isn’t enough; think of the last time it helped when someone simply nodded in reaction to something painful you were experiencing. Empathy translates into sharing the burden of something troublesome. It takes the weight off your partner/spouse/friend/parent/sibling/colleague and adds some onto your shoulders.
From parents with their children to doctors with their patients, the impact of empathy goes a long way. For example, a doctor with an empathetic bedside manner is much easier to engage with than one who’s cold and disconnected. They’re also more effective. “Empathy is just one of the elements that facilitates treatment effectiveness, but a powerful one.”
The Science of Empathy
There’s a science behind these connections. Often when we’re empathetic, our oxytocin levels are higher because we’re connecting with someone on a deep level. This “bonding hormone” is the very one that connects mother and child, but it’s also been nicknamed the “love hormone” for its appearance when we bond with another human, and even pets.
New research also suggests that “mirror neurons” are triggered when we see someone else who is sad, angry, or happy. These neurons help us empathize; to feel what the other person is feeling. “If our experiences are similar enough, we can empathize in a way that promotes a connection and can be soothing to the other person.” By mirroring someone else’s feelings, we’re empathizing with them.
Because of the intense, emotional nature of empathy, those who practice it often can easily become exhausted and burnt out. These are usually caregivers, doctors, nurses, and others in the medical industry whose career requires day-to-day empathy. There are steps you can take to avoid this burn out, but more often than not staying grounded, practicing meditation and self-care, and staying present can go a long way.
OK. But How Can I Be More Empathetic?
The simple act of feeling your own heart beat can make you more empathetic. By literally listening to your heart, you can become better equipped to handle social situations. This is because your heart responds even when your mind doesn't. By staying in touch with your heartbeat, you can more accurately take social cues.
This is where the Heartbeat Stone comes in handy. You can hold the Heartbeat Stone in your hand to feel your heartbeat. And it doesn’t stop there. When you use the Heartbeat Stone to share your heartbeat with a loved one who you’re not with, the connection is almost as good as being in person. Heartbeat communication can increase intimacy, improve your emotional connection (empathy), and communication. According to a study undertaken by the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in partnership with Stanford University and Philips Research, “Feeling the heartbeat of someone you are talking to gives the same feeling of personal contact as looking each other in the eye.”
So if you’re far away from someone, the Heartbeat Stone can help you connect in spite of distance, banishing loneliness and initiating a social reaction in your brain. This connection could be between teams, couples, families, and friends. Feeling a loved one’s heartbeat while you’re having a difficult conversation could help you empathize and understand the other’s viewpoint; it could help you share in their joy if they’re telling you about a big promotion or an exciting trip coming up. This connection builds trust, intimacy, and vulnerability between two people. It can deepen your relationship without words.
Even if you’re not using the Heartbeat Stone with a loved one or friend, the act of being aware of your heartbeat can help you be more empathetic. And people need more empathy in today’s fast-paced, disconnected world. You can change someone’s life by simply being fully present with them in that moment; by empathizing with their struggle. As Vincent Van Gogh said, "Great things are done by a series of small things brought together." Each small act of empathy can add up to have a huge impact.