As I dialed the number, my palms began to sweat. The person on the other end wasn’t a loan officer or angry lawyer; he was an old friend and we were about to catch up. This should all be mildly pleasant but was instead nerve-wracking. You see, I had reached out to him because we had a problem.
Over the years, my friend’s politics and my own had taken incompatible turns. On social media, I saw him growing reactionary; he saw me becoming a soft, “politically correct” academic. We sniped at each other online, then over text. After a while, I realized we’d forgotten our friendship, and I proposed that we talk to each other to try and bridge our differences.
Why did this seem so hard for my friend and I? And why do so many of us feel that human connection has become increasingly out of reach?
That’s what I address in my new book, The War for Kindness. For over a decade, I’ve documented the many ways that empathy helps individuals, relationships, and teams. I’ve also learned how fragile it can be. But there are ways to reignite empathy—and if more of us can do so, we’ll all be better off.
How we (all) got here
Just 30,000 years ago, humans were unremarkable, medium-sized mammals—not particularly strong or fast, lacking sharp teeth, claws, and wings. We weren’t even the only smart ape; five other large-brained species shared the planet with us. But humanity did have something that set us apart: each other. More than any other species, sapiens worked together cooperatively. This helped us become super-organisms who quickly took over the planet.
Our collaborative flair stems from empathy: the capacity to share, understand, and care about what others feel. Individuals who feel empathy in abundance experience greater happiness and less stress and make friends more easily. These benefits ripple outwards—patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care, spouses of empathic individuals are more satisfied in their marriages, children of empathic parents are better able to manage their emotions, and employees of empathic managers suffer less from stress-related illness. Empathy strengthens our social fabric, encouraging generosity toward strangers, tolerance for people who look or think differently than we do, and commitment to environmental sustainability.
Yet for all its benefits, empathy often goes missing just when we need it most. To understand why, think back to our paleolithic past—the environment in which empathy evolved. Humans lived in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, so that anyone you encountered was likely familiar, similar, and maybe even related to you. You counted on each other, knew each other, and could hold each other accountable for your actions.
Even now, empathy comes most naturally when those rules are in place. We care up close, when we can see suffering or joy on someone’s face, and when we can be seen. And we are most inclined to help people who look or think like us.
But these days, the rules that encourage empathy are being broken. More than ever, humans are urban, isolated, and anonymous to each other. We meet irregularly, often in online spaces that privilege outrage and leave cruelty unpunished. We are increasingly tribal, and sometimes view outsiders not as human beings but as symbols of ideas and groups we fear and hate. And when we learn about tragedy, it’s often as an abstraction. We might hear about thousands of people affected by a disaster or civil war, but think of them only as faceless statistics, without any way to access their emotions.
This is not fertile soil for empathy, and by some measures empathy has shriveled. One particularly alarming study found that the average American in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of Americans just 30 years before. In other words, empathy is fading, but maybe you didn’t need a study to tell you that. Our culture appears more callous by the year. Norms of civility are being steadily shredded. Our species rests on human connection, but that foundation feels shakier than ever.
How emotion and reason contribute to empathy
This might look like a one-way trip. The world we’ve built is poorly calibrated with the caring instincts that allowed us to build it in the first place. As long as these trends continue, maybe we are doomed to become madder and meaner over the years.
This view jibes with one of the oldest, most stubborn stereotypes in psychology and our culture. For centuries, we’ve been warned that “passions” are irrational impulses that take people over and steer us into all manner of bad decisions. In other words, we can’t do anything to control our emotions in the moment, or to shape our emotional lives over time. This belief cuts both ways: When an emotion overtakes us, there’s nothing we can do to calm it. And when we don’t feel anything, there’s nothing we can do to turn our emotions up.
This would be bad news for empathy. It means that when we hit the limits of our care, there’s nothing we can do to overcome them and become more empathic. And if the modern world has sapped our collective empathy, there’s nothing we can do to recover that, either.
Thankfully, this stereotype gets emotion backwards. Reason and passion work together, not against each other. Every time you remind yourself that a scary movie is just a movie, or breathe deeply before reprimanding your child, or choose music to psych yourself up for a big game, you decide how you want to feel, and deftly tune your emotions to suit your will.
This goes for empathy as well. We actively turn it up or down, and make choices about empathy all the time. Will you cross the street to avoid a homeless person, or pay attention to their pain? Will you dismiss someone who disagrees with you, or cultivate curiosity about why they feel the way they do? Over time, empathic choices add up—building empathic habits and, eventually, empathic people.
In other words, empathy is like a muscle, which we can build or leave to atrophy.
How to build your empathy
Psychologists have explored many ways that people can work out their care muscles. Some of these techniques not only make people kinder in general, but also help us empathize in circumstances that make doing so difficult, such as encountering people from different social groups like my friend.
Here are some tools psychologists have found to help people connect better:
Meditation. The idea that we can control what we feel may run counter to our beliefs, but other traditions have embraced it for millennia. Contemplative practices such as loving-kindness meditation were developed specifically to help individuals sharpen their empathy, and an increasing amount of evidence suggests that they work.
In one dramatic example, people practiced loving-kindness meditation for nine months, and researchers scanned their brains before and after training. Remarkably, parts of the brain associated with empathy grew in volume as individuals practiced, suggesting that these techniques can have deep and long-lasting effects.
Storytelling. Where statistics fail to move us, stories succeed. They bring us into one person’s perspective, allow us to resonate with their joy and pain, and are steeped in humanity. In fact, even fictional stories help us to empathize with real people.
Evidence suggests that bookworms grow better at understanding others the more stories they eat through. Even small “doses” of fiction can make a difference, especially when they connect us with voices from cultures or groups we might not think or care about otherwise.
Friendship. Empathy dissolves when we see the world in terms of “us and them,” but it recovers just as quickly when we return to “you and I.” Decades of research demonstrate that when people make close, personal contact with members of other groups, under the right conditions, they experience less prejudice. This is in part because they find it easier to empathize with that individual’s perspective and—by extension—with their group as a whole.
This last principle is what I was going for in calling my old friend. We had stopped being people to each other, but I believed a conversation could bring us back. To do so, we focused not on our opinions, but on how we had gotten to them in the first place. We talked about moments of fear, alienation, and anger, and how much we both feared the hatred that seems to be blooming in our national dialogue. Our conversation didn’t make us agree, but it did help us to understand each other, to feel heard, and to remember our common humanity.
I wouldn’t have called my friend if I didn’t know that people can build their empathy. If it’s impossible to change, why waste the energy trying? And indeed, my own research suggests that people who think of empathy as a trait they can’t control empathize lazily—for instance, only when it’s easy, or with people in their own tribe. Understanding empathy as a skill empowers and challenges us to decide what we want to do with it, and what type of people we want to become.
The first step toward building our capacity to care is believing we can succeed. Hopefully by now you know you can. What you do with this knowledge—and with your capacity to care more—is up to you.