“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” – Meryl Streep
Who do you turn to when you are frustrated or upset about something in your life? It is likely someone who listens and expresses an understanding of your feelings and compassion for your struggle.
I’m lucky enough to have a best friend that has been in my life since high-school, and that was many years ago. It doesn’t matter the dilemma, the
heartbreak, or the joy I share with him, he is right there to share it with me. When times are rough he sits beside me, sometimes quietly, sometimes asking questions, but always understanding.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability for a person to understand and share another person’s experiences, feelings, and emotions as if they were their own. Some people seem to have the ability to empathize with others built into their personality. Others it seems can’t pull enough understanding out of their big toe to empathize with a toad.
Empaths absorb other people’s emotions, and sometimes their physical symptoms, due to their high sensitivities. They use their intuition to filter and understand the world. Sometimes, this causes empaths to become overwhelmed and suffer from disorders such as panic attacks and depression. When you absorb other people’s emotions and feel them as though they are your own, you are headed for some turbulent times. Empaths must learn to take care of themselves, to recharge and stay grounded.
As an empath myself, I can identify with the struggle of feeling everyone else’s pain. My day may begin bright and problem free, but when I stop at the donut shop and see the man holding the “I’m hungry” sign I feel sad for his struggle. My mood dampens a bit. Then I get to my desk and my co-worker is having an argument with his wife on the phone. He hangs up the phone without saying goodbye and sighs heavily settling into his chair. Offering an understanding smile and a nod, I spend 15 minutes sharing his painful morning and go back to my desk, tired and drained. The day has only begun, and I am worn out.
Life Without Empathy
Very few people lack empathy entirely. People just protect themselves differently. Some people are unable to handle the overwhelming feelings that come up within them from another person’s pain. They protect their own emotions by putting distance between themselves and the suffering person.
The downside to protecting yourself in this way is that you are unable to offer the support the suffering person needs and deserves. No one should have to suffer alone, or even worse, with someone who appears not to care that you are hurting.
Having empathy, and having others be empathic towards you, is part of what makes us human. It also largely influences the quality of the relationships in your life. The level of happiness, fulfillment, and security, as well as the connection you feel in your relationships, are directly linked to the level of empathy you and the other person can feel. If there is no empathy, there is no true connection or understanding.
Becoming More Empathic
Perhaps you could use a bit more empathy when dealing with the world around you. Maybe your significant other would like you to be more understanding or you want to be a better friend. It turns out all you may need to do is read some literary fiction.
According to a series of studies by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, reading fiction enhances a person’s ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. This is a critical skill when navigating social relationships.
The pair conducted five studies dividing a varying number of participants and giving them different reading assignments. They were given excerpts from a selection of popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, or nothing. Upon completion of the excerpts, the participants were given a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found a significant difference between the literary fiction and popular fiction readers. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read the literary fiction than for those who had read the popular or non-fiction excerpts.
Kidd states, “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”
Popular fiction is full of adventure and excitement. The characters tend to be ‘internally consistent.’ Meaning their emotions and reactions are predictable to the reader.
Literary fiction is usually more realistic and focuses on the characters and their relationships without going into detail. The reader must fill in the gaps to understand their motivation. The characters teach us about life, values, stereotypes, and social behavior, as well as challenge our expectations.
The results imply that reading literary fiction will improve your ability to empathize with other people both in social situations as well as in your personal relationships.
Practical implications could be to start a reading program in prisons to improve the social functioning and empathy of inmates, or perhaps the inclusion of more literary fiction in our educational system.
This is also good news for those whose personal relationships suffer from one partner having a lack of empathy. Try handing over a copy of The Round House by Louise Erdrich and wait for them to finish it. Although, in my case, getting him to read it would be a whole other battle.
Chiaet, J. (2013, 10 04). Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/
David Comer, K. E. (2013, 10 03). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Retrieved from Science: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/10/02/science.1239918?sid=f192d0cc-1443-4bf1-a043-61410da39519
Raymond A. Mar, K. O. (2009). Exploring the link between fiction reading and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications, 407-428.