Is there a difference between empathy and compassion? We know that empathy is the exact opposite of apathy. If apathy is to not concern ourselves with the feelings of another, then empathy is to authentically care about their wellbeing and embrace their emotions. In this way instead of blatant disinterest, empathy allows us to feel what they are feeling. We’ve all heard of someone being described as an empath, someone who is always putting themselves in another’s shoes and feeling absolutely terrible or elated all the time.
But we don’t have to be empaths to be compassionate. Wellness writer, Emma Seppala, Ph.D., notes that compassion is “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.” We don’t have to put ourselves in the shoes of another person to recognize their predicament. It takes but a little effort to understand their plight and seek to assist. Seppala, in her piece for Psychology Today, suggests that it is through our natural compassionate response for others that we, as a species, continue to thrive.
Compassion, it turns out, also goes a long way on scales smaller than the survival of our species. As a leader, colleague, or friend, exercising compassion helps maintain the survival of our relationships, both professional and personal. We don’t have to feel what our employees feel. We don’t even have to feel what our children or our romantic partners feel. But we have to feel for them.
In his TED Talk, Journalist Sebastian Junger discusses the tumultuous affects division and apathy have on our veterans. Junger observes that our modern society alienates our vets and leaves them feeling lonely when we should instead be extending our compassion.
Understanding the feelings of those around us is just the first half of compassion. There’s also that second part–the desire to help. It isn’t enough to just look at those who are struggling and say, “Oh, wow, how terrible!” That alone won’t benefit them or our relationship with them. We must continue with, “How can I help?”
Various studies, such as this one by psychologist Lara Aknin and professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, have discovered that we feel greater happiness when we help others. Helping others is what’s important on scales both large and small. It’s this same innate desire to assist that strengthens bonds, cements relationships, and creates successful teams and societies. This Veteran’s Day, remember that compassion doesn’t just improve our relationships, it improves us.
“Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur.” (A friend in need is a friend indeed)
— Quintus Ennius
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