Modern wisdom says that in order to achieve happiness, we need to focus on becoming the best, most authentic version of ourselves. But according to author Roman Krznaric, seeing the world through the eyes of others is really the key to a happier life and a better world.
In his book Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it, Krznaric makes the case that developing empathy can build stronger relationships, enhance creativity, help you rethink personal priorities, and arm you to tackle social problems from everyday prejudice to violent conflicts. “Empathy has the potential to create a revolution,” he says. “Not a revolution based on new laws, but something much more radical: a revolution of human relationships.”
Empathy has the potential to create a revolution of human relationships.
Scientific studies show that the human brain is wired for empathy. But if empathetic listening is part of our mental makeup, why do so few of us feel it? Why do we tend to see life only through our own eyes?
Part of it is our narcissistic culture—the relentless focus on our own lives in selfies and FB posts—which doesn’t preclude empathy, but makes it less likely that we’ll take the time to ponder the plights of our fellow humans.
“Our well being depends on stepping out of our own egos and into the lives of others, both people close to us and distant strangers. The pleasures of doing so are real and profound,” Krznaric says. It’s moving from the self-focus of the Golden Rule—treating others the way we’d want to be treated—to the Platinum Rule: treating others the way they want to be treated.
Here’s how to work on developing empathy.
Switch on your empathic brain: Recognize that developing empathy can be expanded throughout your life. Become more observant and mindful of the world around you and the people in it.
Step into other people’s shoes. That includes your enemies—to acknowledge their humanity, individuality and perspectives. When you catch yourself making assumptions about someone because of their appearance, make an effort to learn more about them. You may be surprised how wrong you have been.
Seek experiential adventures. Commit to exploring lives and cultures that contrast with your own. You’ll quickly learn that life in other parts of the world is vastly different from yours.
Practice the art of conversation (and listening). Conversation and empathy are intimately entwined. Conversation fosters curiosity about strangers, better listening skills, and encourages us to remove our emotional masks. Be willing to be vulnerable, and you’ll enjoy a deeper connection almost immediately. From there, you can begin to put concern for the other person over your own, a key behavior of an empathetic person.
Travel in your armchair. Transporting yourself into other people’s minds with the help of art, literature, film and online social networks helps you learn more about their struggles and challenges.
Inspire a revolution. Think of a social or political cause you really care about. How could you call on empathy to get more people to understand it and take action? What about your empathic connection with the natural world? Use that to become a better steward of the planet.
“Ultimately, the best reason to develop the habit of empathizing is that empathy can create the human bonds that make life worth living,” Krznaric says.