Empathy: Definition, Examples, and Explanation
What is empathy? Empathy is defined as the ability to step into another person's shoes—to feel what they're feeling and understand their perspective.
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What is empathy?
Empathy refers to our ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When you are empathetic, you put yourself in another person’s shoes, make an effort to see the world from their perspective, and feel the emotions that they feel.
Researchers often differentiate between “affective empathy” (the emotions we feel when empathizing with others’ emotions) and “cognitive empathy,” (our mental ability to understand other people’s perspectives and emotions). Some suggest that cognitive empathy may be more beneficial for our well-being given we don't really want to walk around absorbing other people's negative emotions all the time.
Some people also suggest a third type of empathy: somatic empathy. This is when one person experiences the physical sensations another person is experiencing. I experienced this once when a friend was giving a talk and completely bombed in front of everyone. I literally started experiencing panic symptoms right along with my friend. It was intense!
Here's a cute video defining empathy:
Why is it important to have empathy?
When you can understand where other people are coming from, it becomes easier to treat people with compassion and kindness, which can result in stronger and more satisfying relationships that are based on mutual understanding. If we have little empathy, we can end up focused only on ourselves and our happiness, which doesn't tend to be good for well-being. But when you work to enhance the experiences of others, you're more likely to experience a more fulfilling flavor of happiness.
Signs of empathy
Some people naturally tend to more empathetic than others. Here are some signs that you are a highly empathetic person:
Being empathetic has both pros and cons. It can make for strong relationships because you really care about understanding and being there for people. But heightened empathy can also result in difficulty regulating emotions and becoming overwhelmed by them.
How to cultivate empathy
1. Be curious about others. In order for us to understand people, both mentally and emotionally, we need to be curious about them. Ask questions to learn more about others and how they came to believe what they believe.
2. Walk in someone else's shoes. We have a hard time understanding where another person is coming from until we've walked in their shoes. We can overcome this by engaging in experiments. For example, you could go to religious services of a religion other than your own, or you could try to live on a minimum wage salary to see how it would feel.
3. Be present while listening. So often we have a million thoughts on our minds and are not listening fully. But if we are fully present when listening, we can better understand and really hear what people are saying to us.
Activities to develop empathy
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.