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Is Empathy Our Most Dangerous and Self-Indulgent Emotion?

Compassion is becoming a word so widely misused that it is rapidly losing its true meaning. Many people (and organisations) appear to profess ‘compassion’ in the same way that they support eliminating poverty and protecting the environment, that is, they’re in favour so long as they don’t have to do too much about it.

At first glance, this is a little disheartening….. However, true heart-felt compassion remains intrinsically human and easily stirred. Compassion is so deeply embedded in human nature that few people are incapable of experiencing it. That fact that we get angry when we see people behaving thoughtlessly, unfairly, or callously, is a testament to humanity’s intrinsically compassionate nature. We are angered by sexism, racism, and inequality precisely because we are caring compassionate creatures. If we were not, then we simply would not care about such things, let alone become angry about them. We even wage war out of the compassion we feel for others, however misguided that may prove to be. Compassion is human. And strange as it may seem, it is also good for us.

Dr Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the world’s leading researchers on human emotion, says that cultivating positive emotions such as compassion helps to build the four key resources that progressively enhance success and overall happiness in life. Firstly, it helps to build cognitive resources, such as the ability to mindfully attend to the present moment. This, in turn, enhances concentration, creativity and focus. Secondly, it helps to build psychological resources, such as the ability to maintain a sense of mastery over life. This can help ward off anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of being trapped or exhausted. Thirdly, it builds social resources, such as the ability to give and receive emotional support. This helps to build and maintain family ties and friendships. And fourthly, it helps build physical resources by, for example, boosting the immune system so that you are healthier and more energised by life. Enhancing these four resources will help you to meet life’s challenges more effectively and to take advantage of its opportunities.

In short, says Dr Barbara Fredrickson: ‘When people open their hearts to positive emotions, they seed their own growth in ways that transform them for the better.’

Mindfulness is a highly effective way of enhancing such positive emotions. It does this on many levels simultaneously, but it primarily works by helping people reconnect with their previously suppressed emotions (there are also specific practices such as ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation that directly enhance compassion). It also helps people tease apart, and sense, the many different ‘flavours’ of their emotions so that they cease to be over-whelmed by the intensity of their feelings.

A good example is the way that people misunderstand (and feel) compassion and empathy. Empathy is the sharing of another person’s state of mind and their emotions whereas compassion actively seeks to relieve another’s suffering. Therein lies the crucial difference: compassion is active whereas empathy is passive. Empathy is, in some ways, a necessary precursor to compassion. It provides the motivational force to actually relieve another’s distress. But it can also be a ‘negative’ or even a coercive emotion because it is ethically neutral.

People often confuse compassion with empathy. A rather brutal analogy highlights the difference: A torturer will put a gun to your head. An empathic torturer will put the gun to your child’s head. A compassionate one will put the gun down…. Same situation. Same tools. Only the interpretation of the raw emotional data differs.

So empathy alone can be quite dangerous (and arguably a little self-indulgent). To my mind, empathy carries with it a slight tinge of entertainment or even voyeurism. It is stoked by the news media, who ironically, often have the best of intentions. Empathy in the Twenty-First century can also be highly damaging to mental health and well-being. We are all bombarded with disturbing images from war-torn parts of the world. Talented journalists, photographers and broadcasters all compete to get the most harrowing stories and images. Empathy then ensures that they eat their way into our soul and corrode our mental wellbeing.

Dark political and economic forces can also use our natural sense of empathy to drag us into interminable wars over which we can have no long term influence. It is one thing sending off young men and women to die if they can banish an evil dictator and bring peace. It is quite another to send them off to be blown apart because people have been manipulated into believing that ‘something must be done’. Quite simply, most western interventions over the past few decades have served only to enrich the arms industry, satisfy our desire ‘to do something’, and provide news channels with exciting footage. And to what end? Can we influence the course of a civil war? A more compassionate approach would be to accept that terrible things can happen, and that we have absolutely no control or influence over them. In such scenarios, the best course of action is to adopt the first principle of medicine. That is: ‘First, do no harm’. And that may mean doing nothing at all.

We can counteract the tendency to substitute empathy for compassion by actively cultivating the growth of positive emotions. Recent work has shown that it is possible to do this using a specific type of meditation known as Metta (or Loving Kindness). In a landmark study, Dr Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that practicing this meditation increased the pleasure and intensity of feelings as diverse as curiosity, amusement, hope, joy, awe, and love.[i] In turn, these positive emotions built the four key personal resources necessary for a happy and creative life, namely; cognitive, psychological, social and physical. This meant that those who practised the meditation found themselves with an increased purpose in life, had more friends, were happier and healthier, and were consequently more satisfied with their lives. And over time, such feelings lead to enhanced creativity, clarity of thought, cognitive flexibility and compassion. It’s a virtuous circle too; happiness leads to success – and success to greater happiness. These aren’t just welcome outcomes in themselves. Recent work has discovered that such positive moods also directly enhance divergent thinking, the type of thinking which underpins creativity.[ii]

Perhaps then, if we can collectively learn to think and act more creatively, we might just be able to deal with the world’s problems more effectively. We might learn to deal with them with intelligence and compassion, rather than risk making them worse with empathy.


Try these simple practices to enhance compassion and wellbeing

Try this Resilience Meditation (a type of Metta meditation) led by Dr Danny Penman. You can listen, stream or download it from here. Try doing it for at least 5 days.

You can also try this simple Breathing Meditation to ground yourself in the present moment and clarify the mind.

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[i] Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J. & Finkel, S. M. (2008), ‘Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, pp. 1045–62. See Barbara Fredrickson’s website at peplab/home.html.

[ii] Lorenza S. Colzato & Ayca Szapora & Dominique Lippelt & Bernhard Hommel (2012). Prior Meditation Practice Modulates Performance and Strategy Use in Convergent- and Divergent-Thinking Problems. Mindfulness
DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0352-9.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I read your definition of empathy, and your example of the torturer, with disbelief. Yes, the use of the word ‘Empathy ‘ is unfortunately fashionable. However, it is not a feeling but a skill – it needs to be understood and practiced. Therefore, it is not passive. It is also not neutral, because it requires an effort to show empathy, and to maintain a balanced outlook (thus it is not sympathy or compassion). To make that effort is an act of love that enables a person to have a more objective understanding of another’s situation. Out of that understanding of the other and of the situation, real help can be offered.

    February 5, 2018

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