This time of year, staying healthy gets a lot of our attention—we get flu shots, cold medicines go flying off the shelves, and hand sanitizers are ever-present. We all know that staying healthy is important. So here is another health tip: Empathy is good for your health. How can this be? Isn’t empathy about focusing on the other person—how someone else is feeling, what they might be thinking, what it is like to be in the other person’s place? If empathy is about the other person, how does practicing empathy help me?
Indeed, focusing on the other is an important part of empathy. But did you know that empathy can be good for you? We already know that using empathy in your life can be beneficial to those around you,1 but it also can benefit you. In fact, empathy can promote good health, lower stress, and prevent burnout.
1. Empathy and survival
At its foundation, empathy can save your life, and that certainly is good for your health! Reading other people can help you to make decisions that are good for you. If someone is screaming, running, and yelling for you to follow, or even has a look of terror on their face, you pick up their fear and immediately tune in to the situation. This happens physically without even knowing it, and then mentally you become alert and process what is going on. Even if you cannot understand exactly what they are saying, you pay attention. And that can be the moment you run away from a dangerous situation. Survival as a result of reading others is the core of empathy.
2. Empathy connects you to others
Beyond survival, empathy is about feeling and understanding the experiences of others. It connects you to other people in deep and meaningful ways. While it may be centered on figuring out what is going on for the other person, in that process, you nurture the important human need for connection and attachment. Empathy is the way that we feel understood and reciprocate those feelings. “I hear you” means something important is being exchanged between two people, and that gives us a sense of connection. And being connected to others is good for our well-being.2
3. Empathy can lower stress
Empathy promotes abilities that help us handle stress. Studies show that when we can regulate our emotions, we are better able to relate to others in positive ways.3 This is known as emotion regulation, which is the ability to take in the experiences of others without being overwhelmed. This skill is also imperative for us to de-stress ourselves. Although stress may be brought on by many different things, it is physiologically processed in the same way—it pumps up our stress-response hormones and readies us for action. But over periods of time, this state of alertness becomes unhealthy.4 When we fully engage in empathy, we draw on skills for emotion regulation. In doing so, we are also controlling emotions that can be stressful. Thus, the side benefit from being fully engaged empathically is that we can be exercising good control over our emotions, taking care of our own stress.
4. Empathy is an antidote to burnout
One of the dangers of the workplace is burnout, that feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to focus on the work at hand. Losing one’s interest and joy at work can open us to long hours of anger, depression, and frustration. Besides leaving us feeling miserable for all those hours we are at work, it is not good for our health. Work that my team of researchers did shows that the higher a person’s empathy skills, the lower their job burnout.5 This means that when we build our empathic abilities, we also build our skills at handling difficult work situations, we communicate with others in more effective ways, we understand others, and we feel better understood. And when we are in that good space at work, we communicate with others in ways that promote collaboration.
5. Empathy guides our moral compass
Perhaps larger than all of us is our moral code of conduct, that is, how we treat others and expect to be treated. Empathy helps us identify what we consider to be acceptable behavior. When we create rules that make us safe, protect us from those acting badly, and take care of those less fortunate, we are using empathy to guide those codes.6 Empathy is a foundation for the moral behaviors that create healthier communities, from which all of us benefit.
For this time of year, finding ways to keep us and others healthy is perhaps the best gift we can give, so give the gift of empathy.
de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. New York: Random House.
de Vignemont, F. & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10 (10), 435-441.
Eisenberg, N., Smith, C. L., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2004). Effortful control: Relations with emotion regulation, adjustment, and socialization in childhood. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications, 259–282. New York: Guilford Press.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping, 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Wagaman, M.A., Geiger, J.M., Shockley, C., & Segal, E.A. (2015). The role of empathy in burnout, compassion satisfaction, and secondary traumatic stress among social workers. Social Work, 60 (3), 201-209.
Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. London: Cambridge University Press.