How to exercise your empathy muscle

If you’ve been paying attention to the last 60+ stories we’ve written here, you’ve likely noticed a theme — namely, that our brains don’t set like concrete as we age, and it’s never too late to change your mind.

Well, this week, we’re talking about yet another mental muscle group that we’ve been taught to believe is set in stone, but is actually incredibly flexible: empathy.

We tend to think of empathy as an inherent quality — some (i.e. mother Theresa) are born with empathy to spare… others (i.e. every Jeremy Piven character), not so much. Sometimes it comes reflexively (as with our chosen family), but when it doesn’t, conventional wisdom says there’s not much we can do except grit our teeth and curse them out under our breath.

Stanford neuroscientist and author Jamil Zaki notes that, if true, this thinking is bad news for today’s world: “It means that whenever we fail to empathize, we’ve hit the limits of our circuitry. We must simply stand by and watch as our world becomes more callous and disconnected.”

Luckily, empathy is more like being good at Scrabble

You get better with practice. *Cue Speechless Theme Song* We know, we sound like a broken record, but research from the Standford Social Neuroscience Lab suggests that empathy is less like a fixed trait and more like a skill. Through practice, we can grow our empathy and become kinder as a result, which is huge news for all of our shrivel Grinch hearts.

Zaki writes, “in any given moment, we can turn empathy up or down like the volume knob on a stereo: learning to listen to a difficult colleague, or staying strong for a suffering relative. In other words, empathy is not a superpower, it’s a regular old power, like being strong, agile, or good at Scrabble. Some people are genetically predisposed to be stronger than others — but strength is also up to us. Live a sedentary life, and your muscles will atrophy. Stay active, and they’ll grow.”

Your first empathy exercise: reverse the Golden Rule

Treat yourself the way you’d treat others. Reflect on a recent time you disappointed yourself. Now imagine that a close friend or family member failed in exactly the same way.

What would you say to them? How would you feel about them? How would you want them to feel? Then, Zaki suggests, “turn that same lens back on yourself — try to give yourself the same grace and compassion to yourself that you’d give to someone you love.”

The Point: You can find this and Zaki’s other empathy challenges here.

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