Empathy, a key ingredient of Emotional Intelligence, plays a major role in developing healthy organizations and effective leadership. But research suggests that concern for others also fosters individual happiness — yet another compelling reason to address the apparent decline in empathy among younger generations.
According to many behavioral scientists, rampant narcissism and the erosion of compassion have coincided with — and may be related to — increased usage of social media, excessive screen time, and lack of face-to-face interaction. Researcher Dr. Sara Konrath examines correlations between the decline of empathy and such societal problems as bullying and aggression in her article Why Is Empathy Decreasing?
For individuals, however, ebbing regard for others may undermine efforts toward personal fulfillment and achievement. Dr. Michele Borba, child psychologist and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, argues that the trend toward callousness may be detrimental to children in some surprising ways. As she notes in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2014, Why Kids Care More About Achievement Than Helping Others, the correlation between empathy, contentment, and success is particularly interesting in light of research suggesting that adults inadvertently emphasize the value of accomplishment and personal gratification over fairness and kindness.
The article highlights a Harvard University study, The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values, that points out a possible contradiction between the ideals adults intend to impart and the signals they are actually sending to children about priorities. While parents and teachers report stressing the importance of thoughtfulness among young people, children report feeling that adults place their expectations for success above their expectations to care.
According to Borba, young people are increasingly overwhelmed by life’s pressures and are simultaneously more isolated. These circumstances create fertile ground for depression, stress, and anxiety.
The good news is that both Borba and Konrath are among the many experts who believe that empathy can be nurtured with a little work. On her website, cultureofempathy.com, Konrath shares her research on empathy among different age groups and suggests that some of the technology we blame for increased self-absorption can be used to enhance our awareness of others. Borba’s book likewise recommends activities, such as role-playing, that can help children develop insights into how other people might feel in various situations.
Another possible antidote to the decline in empathy, proposed in a 2016 article from Lifezette, is simply reading more. The article, which points out that our increased time spent online may have come at the sacrifice of time reading books, argues that encouraging children to read for pleasure may help restore some of the sensitivity we seem to be losing. Reading is one of the best ways to get inside the minds and motivations of others.
Through empathy we cultivate happiness, both within ourselves and the world around us. It should be remembered that humans, no matter how diverse, are still innately social creatures. These social interactions, specifically those between parent and child, have been proven to drive success and increase empathy.