The secret ingredient in happiness, health, community, achievement, heck - even in a good meal - is care. You can't have quality without care. And you can't have real care without empathy. That's the ability to not just sympathize but to actually see a situation or circumstance from another's point of view - to get what they get, see what they see and understand what they feel from their perspective, even when it disagrees with yours.
That's a tall order. One that most of us struggle with our whole lives as we bump into tough times, get defensive and hunker down with our own worldview. But one thing COVID-19 and the current social struggles for equality and justice have shown us is that we cannot protect ourselves unless we also protect others - all others. And empathy is the key to doing that.
Fortunately, recent research shows that empathy can be taught -- and learned. The brain processes that allow for and are evoked by empathy are hardwired - we can choose to use them to "internally imitate" others and mirror their feelings as our own. In organizations, such as medical schools, formal lessons in empathy are sometimes conducted, since it creates better doctor-patient relationships. But you as an individual can increase your ability to empathize on your own.
- Pay attention to your own feelings. If you are out of touch with yourself, it's going to be hard to get in touch with someone else's emotions. Keep a journal and record your thoughts. Think about your mind-body connection. When you recognize you have a feeling, figure out where in your body you feel it too.
- Notice another person's positive emotions, not just the negative ones. Empathy with another's happiness is as important as empathy with sorrow or anger. It builds bridges, lets you acquire joy you may not have been feeling yourself and reaffirms another person's sense of delight, helping them to enjoy it more.
- Find opportunities to engage with people who are different from you and who you do not know well. Ask a colleague or neighbor to lunch and ditch the small talk. Ask them how they're doing and what their days are like. Research shows that it is actually learning about the other person's perspective that increases empathy. Projecting what you imagine they might feel onto them does not.
- Don't just listen, watch. Take time every day, on the commuter train, in a meeting, eating lunch at a diner or in a group of friends, to notice people's facial expressions and body language. Researchers at Amsterdam's Social Brain Lab have found that "observing another person's action, pain or affect can trigger parts of the same neural networks responsible for executing those actions and experiencing those feelings firsthand." Listening is also important because a person's tone of voice, not just their words, is a clue to the feelings.
You'll find that as your ability to empathize grows, your sense of connection to the world at large, to your community and your own family members and friends will deepen and become comforting -- a true virtual hug. And while empathizing may intensify your own emotions, it also eases your distress at seeing someone else suffer by making it understandable and shared. It also helps you manage your own fear that a similar situation may happen to you and you would be unattended.
According to a new study from Southern Methodist University and the University of Illinois, increased empathy will shift your moral compass. Researchers tracked people's thoughts about the concepts of care, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity for 15 weeks. As people's empathy increased, they placed an increased priority on care and fairness, less on authority, purity or loyalty.
But if you still wonder if it's worth it - personally - to bother with empathy, maybe Maya Angelou will convince you of the rewards: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.