The Superpowers We Need Today: Compassion and Empathy

Regardless of your politics, the world at large probably feels like it has gotten so swept up in debate and outrage that basic human compassion has fallen by the wayside—precisely when we need it the most.

A recent global BBC survey showed that more than three-quarters of Earth’s population feel their country is divided. More than half feel it’s more divided than was 10 years ago.

Luckily, we have the tool we need to cut through that: our innate human ability to connect to others.

Baby, it’s cold outside

“(Empathy is) understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you—it’s a mode of relating,” Lori Chandler once wrote for BigThink. “(Compassion is) feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action.”

Female friends hugging. Empathy pbs rewire
You can’t overestimate the value of putting down technology and being there for each other.

Empathy and compassion are essential tools for connecting with others. But despite the many ways in which we are all linked by technology, technology can also make it easy to distance ourselves from the feelings of others.

Nonstop news coverage of the latest troubling events also helps create a bleak perception of our world, not to mention the vocal minority of social media trolls who actively try to tear down others online.

It’s easy to interpret this apparent emotional disconnect as a sign that we as a species are becoming more indifferent and desensitized to the tragedy and sorrow of those around us.

Yet, James R. Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, maintains that compassion still plays an integral role in the hearts and minds of people today, despite what you might think.

“There is an impression that the world is becoming more evil and less compassionate,” Doty said. “While it may appear this way because of the prevalence of 24/7 media, I think the world still remains a compassionate place.”

Division of the future

We can all be pretty distracted by our smartphones, which doesn’t help us foster moments of connection with people around us. But detachment from others may also be tied to self-preservation in a difficult time. If you’re drowning in a sea of responsibilities and online activity, it’s no wonder you’ve become anesthetized to it all.

Rather than trying to struggle against it or developing a keener sense of self-awareness (as recent activist movements encourage), most people revert to fight-or-flight response and opt to ignore the pain of others—especially in the case of large-scale tragedies— in favor of our own troubles.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic calls this phenomenon “psychic numbing.” This concept not only underscores the limits of human compassion in the world of politics—where a single decision can affect thousands or even millions of lives—but how lots of us respond to the constant bombardment of pain and suffering in the news.

When we’re faced with a human crisis, we can either choose to lean into our compassionate side and take it upon ourselves to lend a hand, or turn away before we ever have the opportunity to care. That’s the root of the division we’re seeing play out in our country today.

Empathy is the key

Especially in the face of the compassionate crossroads at hand, it’s absolutely critical to make an effort to engage with our emotional side and not disregard our ability to show compassion for those around us, Doty said.

Businesswoman empowering her colleague. Empathy pbs rewire
Empathy isn’t just for family and friends. Sometimes it comes in handy at work too.

The good news is that most people are already doing this, and you can take a cue from them.

“Unless the vast majority of people were compassionate, society would fall apart into chaos and anarchy,” he said. “One simply needs to look around with open eyes, and they will see a million acts of kindness everyday.”

It’ll make you feel good, too. Adopting a less-compassionate mindset can wreak havoc on your attitude, emotional state and physical well-being. On the other hand, research continues to show that compassion isn’t only a crucial ingredient for a healthy society, but is also beneficial to the people who are practicing it.

How to move forward

No one likes to feel overloaded or like they’re living in a cold, unfeeling world, but lots of us get into the habit of working too hard and not keeping life in perspective.

Luckily, “it is within each person’s power to be kind and compassionate towards another,” Doty said. “No one can take that away from you.”

Perhaps the answer to spreading compassion starts, naturally, with each of us. Connect with the people in your life on a more caring, personal level. Volunteer in your community, and stand up for what you believe in. A tangible approach like that is bound to do wonders for others, as well as restore your own faith in humanity.

Remember that compassion is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Living in this world with open hearts and open minds—despite the scary stuff— is far more courageous and admirable than closing yourself off emotionally and refusing to lend an ear or shoulder to cry on to those who need it.

A headshot of a man. PBS Rewire. Robert Yaniz Jr.

Robert Yaniz Jr. is a full-time freelance writer specializing in business, marketing and entertainment. Over the last 15 years, he has covered everything from the regional business scene to the latest movies and TV shows. You can usually find him—laptop on hand—sipping a latte or chasing after his young daughter. For more on his work, check out robertyanizjr.com or email him directly at [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter @robertyanizjr.