A Q&A with Jamil Zaki, PhD, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.
Thrive Global: What does research tell us about the importance of having empathy for others, both in our work and home lives?
Jamil Zaki: Loads of evidence demonstrates that when people experience empathy, or the ability to share and understand each other’s emotions, it benefits themselves and others around them. For instance, people who score high on empathy tests are happier and attract friends more easily than their less empathic peers. They also excel at work, especially in "people-centric" professions like sales or management. Empathy also helps people navigate important personal relationships. Adolescents who can skillfully decode others' feelings are more likely to survive the slings and arrows of seventh grade without developing mood problems, and empathic individuals' romantic partners tend to be more satisfied with their relationships.
TG: How can we build our empathy muscle?
JZ: One common misconception about empathy is that it's a trait—built into our genes and hard-wired into our brain, such that some people simply have it and others don't. There's some truth to this notion: for instance, identical twins have levels of empathy that are more similar to each other than fraternal twins. But that doesn't mean that we're "stuck" at one level of empathy for life. Some people are naturally better at basketball than others, but by practicing your jump shot you can still vastly improve it. Empathy is like that, too. And even if you don't realize it, you choose whether to practice empathy. Will you cross the street to avoid a homeless person or pay attention to their pain? Will you ignore the opinions of someone you disagree with or hear them out? Making empathic choices, over time, builds empathic habits, and eventually empathic people. For instance, just a few weeks ago, a landmark study examined people who practiced empathy exercises for three months. Not only did they improve at understanding other people, but parts of their brain involved in empathizing became thicker. By practicing empathy, they made changes to the biology underlying it!
TG: What’s your advice for those who struggle to empathize with others, particularly during times of stress?
JZ: These are hard times for empathy. In America, especially, we're facing a cultural moment full of tribalism and isolation. The anonymity and echo chambers of social media likely aren't helping either. But I think moments like these make it especially important to challenge ourselves. Part of this is remembering that empathy is a skill, and that in building it we not only protect our own well-being, but can also help others around us. Working at empathy isn't always easy, but many things that are worthwhile take time and effort. In times like these, I think we all need to ask ourselves what type of world we want to live in, and what we will do to bring that world about. And if we wish for a world that is kinder and more connected, our own empathy is a great place to start.
You can learn more about building empathy by watching Zaki’s TEDx talk here.