Humanist EDge: How Does Empathy Lead to Altruism?

Photo by Alexei Scutari on Unsplash

Celebrate World Humanist Day (June 21) throughout June with us by exploring the Ten Commitments of Humanist Living. We continue with Empathy and Altruism.

Empathy is a core aspect of what makes us human. Understanding others’ thoughts, feelings, and circumstances increases our patience, consideration, and compassion for others. It allows us to connect and engage with others outside of ourselves. While sympathy helps us feel pity for someone’s pain, empathy enables us to comprehend that pain and motivates us to help relieve it, regardless of any benefits or personal gain, leading to more altruistic behaviors. Altruism is the selfless concern for the well-being of others and recognizes that the collective welfare of society depends on the welfare of each individual. We should always seek to alleviate the suffering and hardships of others with compassionate action.

Empathy is both a trait and a skill. There are specific genes associated with empathy, and most of us have the brain capacity to be empathic. When we witness someone else’s emotion, our bodies automatically respond similarly—as is the case with “empathic crying.” For some, just seeing another person cry may elicit tears. But it isn’t just the visual image of another’s tears that can bring about our own; neuroscientists have found that seeing another person’s pain can trigger neural networks, causing a sort of “mirror system.”

Kristen Rogers, in her article Empathy, is both a trait and a skill. Here’s how to strengthen it says,

“Mirror neurons mimic the actions and behaviors of others and are linked to more intuitive, emotional empathy. The insula regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which control the fight-or-flight response and relax the body, respectively. The limbic system regulates bodily functions in response to emotional stimuli and reinforces behavior through memories.”

Not all of us can be empathic easily. Studies on individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have shown several reasons why they struggle with empathy—from a dysfunctional Mirror Neuron System, noted above, to alexithymia, a condition making it challenging to comprehend and recognize their own emotions. Despite the neurological impairments of individuals with ASD or others who find being empathic challenging, almost anyone can learn how to develop empathy. Articles and guides indicate ways to increase understanding of others and why it is critical for personal, community, societal, and global success.

Denmark, one of the happiest countries on earth, has discovered how important empathy is to its population’s overall state of being. Since 1993, Denmark requires weekly empathy classes, “Klassen tid,” as a fundamental part of the school curriculum. “Klassen tid” engages children from ages 6-16 to discuss their problems and work together as a class to find solutions. The emphasis is on respecting others without judgment, fostering stronger relationships, and encouraging individual success through personal challenges instead of competing with others.

Benefits for teaching empathy, as Denmark found, aren’t limited to building positive friendships, collaborative teamwork, or self-motivation towards excelling. Teaching empathy also promotes altruistic behavior—as it increases compassion for others and their experiences. It raises respect for differences, thus decreasing bullying amongst children. By caring for others and encouraging altruism, we reinforce healthy connections and contribute to the betterment of our community, society, and the world.

Research indicates that an awareness of how it feels “to be in another person’s shoes” does change perceptions and behavior towards others. Being empathic can prompt curiosity, openness, and exploration in seeking other points of view outside of your own. Engaging in conversation with a stranger, actively listening to a friend, or following the Native American proverb to “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins” will alter your lens. It will adjust how you see the world and those standing beside you, acting as an incentive to challenge biases, resolve conflict, and inspire social transformation.

Whenever you get that chance, practice being empathic. Whether it be in the grocery check-out line or a family event, take a moment to better connect by asking a simple open-ended question, like “how is your day?”. Focus on speakers without distraction or interruption, so you can fully listen and comprehend what they share. You never know what you might learn, how you could change, or how you might improve someone else’s day.