Empathy: The Surprising Secret to a Happier, Healthier Life

Experience the world in a new light with empathy, the key that unlocks a window through the eyes of others and allows us to grasp the impact of our actions. 

Empathy is far more than a concept. It’s the art of connecting with others, allowing us to share their joy and sorrow. This transformative force has revolutionized industries from business to healthcare and enriches the lives of those who embrace it. 

Unlock empathy’s power to transform your world. 

Types of Empathy

Empathy research is still relatively new, but most researchers settled on three types: cognitive, affective, and somatic.

Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP at Absolute Awakenings says that the three types of empathy relate to our thinking, emotions, and bodies, respectively.  With cognitive empathy, we can empathize with someone by understanding their feelings without sharing their emotional experience, while with affective empathy, we experience the emotions along with them.

Christina Bradley, MS. Ed., DBT, REBT, Senior Associate Therapist with Gateway to Solutions, describes somatic empathy as a physiological sensation. “If you see someone’s finger sliced in a graphic movie, in experiencing somatic empathy, you may retract your fingers and clench your fist due to the pain you feel for the finger that was cut in the movie,” she explains, noting that while your finger is fine, your body still physically reacts to the idea of pain.

Dr. Carolina Estevez, Clinical Psychologist with Infinite Recovery, says some practices break it down further, adding compassionate empathy. She describes it as a combination of emotional and cognitive empathy, where you both understand and feel someone’s emotions but also experience a deep need to help them if you can.

Why Empathy is Crucial to Leadership

Empathy is swiftly becoming one of the most sought-after leadership traits. A conference paper from the 80th International Scientific Conference on Economic and Social Development hosted last year in Croatia extols the virtues of empathy for effective leadership after studying its effects from a business management perspective.

The paper found that empathy in leadership drives employee engagement, innovation, engagement, retention, and inclusion. It also promotes communication, cohesiveness, and collaboration while improving stakeholder appreciation.

A 2021 survey conducted by Catalyst called The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond found that empathy boosts productivity, creativity, and employees’ intent to stay. When leaders support their employees at work and understand their personal struggles, employees feel valued and driven to excel.

These studies support earlier neurological research. A 2012 study scanned people’s brains while asking about experiences with good and bad leaders. They found that even the memory of poor leaders triggered mirror neuron systems related to avoidance, reduced attention, and decreased compassion.

The findings highlight why empathy’s critical contribution to leadership. Empathic leaders care about their employees, and employees who feel cared for give back in spades.

Empathy’s Role in Health and Wellness

Empathy is crucial outside the business world as well. It touches every aspect of people’s lives.

According to Harvard Medical School, studies suggest that empathy in healthcare leads to better outcomes. It improves patient satisfaction and clinical outcomes. In addition, patients who feel their doctors truly understand them are more likely to follow their treatment plans.

Kotkin-De Carvalho explains one reason why this might be true. “Being able to sense how people around you feel can be helpful for healthcare providers in particular, who must be attuned to their patients’ physical and emotional states,” she says.

Empathic people tend to be happier in their personal lives as well. They enjoy stronger relationships and healthier support networks while displaying better conflict-resolution skills.

Greater empathy is also linked to greater self-compassion, which helps people relate better to themselves and develop their identities.

The Downsides of Empathy

Too much of anything can lead to adverse effects.  A 2021 study showed some correlation between affective empathy and depression.

Bradley offers a possible explanation. She says regularly or unintentionally practicing empathy can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and increased levels of depression. Bradley advises that integrating mindfulness and becoming more discerning about intentional empathy can decrease the potential for these outcomes.

Balancing The Benefits of Empathy with the Potential Downsides

Dr. Estevez says a deep sense of understanding and connection can contribute to happiness but can also lead to emotional exhaustion, especially for those frequently exposed to the suffering of others.  She adds that balancing empathy with self-care is crucial.

Setting emotional boundaries, seeking support from a mental health professional, and using a journal to record your thoughts and feelings can help prevent the adverse effects associated with too much empathy.

Empathy for a Happier Life

Overall, the benefits of empathy outweigh the potential risks, especially when practicing the mindfulness and self-care techniques recommended by mental health professionals.

The good news is that it is not a fixed trait. According to Dr. Estevez, anyone can develop empathy. It is a skill that takes practice, like any other.

Prioritize empathy in your life to reap the benefits. 

This article was produced and syndicated by Media Decision