Empathy is the only human superpower—it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.
Empathy is the most powerful emotional force in the world, second only to love—especially when it’s wielded on purpose. When our natural capacity to empathize is summoned into action on behalf of others, two things happen: the recipient benefits and so does the empathic actor. To our brains, empathy in action is as rewarding as good sex and the high of psychedelic drugs. It increases our dopamine, reduces our stress, boosts our self-esteem, heightens our immune system, enriches our relationships, and even improves our key performance indicators at work.
Did you know:
- The top-ten most empathic companies generated 50 percent more earnings.
- You’re less likely to have a heart attack if you regularly help others.
- Children are more likely to succeed in life if they volunteer.
That’s why empathy is our superpower. And it is finally getting the recognition it deserves. In fact, lately empathy has become a business buzzword. Nearly every week, a new study affirms that empathic leadership, cultures, and workplaces help organizations overcome crises, facilitate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies, provide psychological safety, bolster mental health, and drive recruitment, engagement, and retention. Empathy is central to design thinking. And according to Forbes, sometimes the acronym CEO now refers to “chief empathy officer.” Artificial empathy is driving affective computing, tele-empathy is disrupting healthcare, and videogames using virtual empathy are expected to help grow the metaverse. Given all its applications, it’s a mystery that it took corporate America so long to catch on.
According to research, most employees would work longer hours and even take a pay cut if they felt their employer cared about them. In addition, they believe organizational empathy decreases turnover and drives productivity. Despite this, under half of workers rate their workplaces as empathic. Many CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes too, but nearly seven in ten fear they’d be less respected if they showed it at work.
The good news is we can practice empathy to help our organizations succeed and humanity thrive—all while simultaneously reaping personal rewards. Skeptical? Let me explain.
Our Massive Empathy Deficit
Liberal democracies are splintering as political polarization grows. Predatory capitalism is on a collision course with life on the planet. And inequality between the rich and poor is getting worse every day. It’s so overwhelming and anxiety-provoking that sometimes we feel we may as well hoist a white flag and call it a day. Which is what plenty of us do—but not everyone. Today, an inclusive, intersectional, global coalition of empathy warriors is forming, transcending generations and geography, demanding positive change in the world. Millions are railing against systemic racism and poverty while also fighting for sustainability, food security, and accessible housing, healthcare, and education. That said, until purposeful empathy has become more of a global priority, there’s still plenty of work to do.
According to the World Food Program, one in nine people on the planet is hungry or undernourished—despite one-third of food produced for humans going to waste. A few years ago, experts calculated that an extra eleven billion dollars per year of public spending until 2030 could end world hunger. Sadly, no such public spending occurred because of the 2008 economic crisis, during which over one trillion taxpayer dollars were used by the twenty richest nations to stabilize the global financial system.
The World Health Organization reports that nearly two billion people have no basic sanitation facilities like toilets or latrines, and at least 10 percent of humanity consumes food irrigated by wastewater. Meanwhile, one in three people lack access to safe drinking water, partially explaining why 1.6 million people die from diarrheal disease every year, one-third of whom are children under five years. Finally, as the planet’s population grows by eighty million per year, so, too, does the demand for fresh water—at the mindboggling rate of sixty-four billion cubic meters per year, equivalent to nearly three thousand Olympic-size swimming pools per hour.
Even those who benefit most from our economic system are suffering. Consider this: the rate of depression in industrialized countries is doubling each generation. Thirty years ago, the average age for the onset of depression was thirty. Today, it’s fourteen. Lest we forget all the other afflictions normalized by “advanced nations,” including homelessness, mass shootings, drug overdoses, and eco-anxiety, the last being so widespread among young adults that the idea of having kids is increasingly considered reckless.
But who could blame them? Global temperatures are on track to rise 10˚F over the next century, one million plant and animal species face extinction, and millions of people are expected to become climate refugees. What kind of species destroys its own habitat and jeopardizes the lives of its progeny? A species that has forgotten to practice empathy.
Empathic by Nature
Some argue we got here thanks to our selfish human nature. Is that true? According to Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, our understanding of human nature is fundamentally flawed because research has focused almost exclusively on chimpanzees, who are known to be aggressive, hostile to outgroups, and prone to egregious acts of violence, including cannibalism and infanticide. De Waal believes our concept of what it means to be human would be entirely different if we had spent the last fifty years studying bonobos instead. Unlike their primate cousins, bonobos are naturally nurturing, playful, cooperative, and egalitarian. They even use sex to promote social bonding—they literally make love, not war.
Homo sapiens share 98.7 percent DNA in common with bonobos. We also share a similar amount of DNA with chimpanzees. In fact, we share more DNA in common with chimps and bonobos than they share with each other. So while humans have quite a few chimp-like tendencies, we’re also remarkably like bonobos. This means we can’t blame our selfish genes for the mess we’re in. Instead, we must take a long, hard look in the mirror and hold ourselves to greater account.
We must also flex our empathy muscles, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do in a world that primes us not to care. Once upon a time, we lived our entire lives in small clans with close relationships. That’s how our proclivity for empathy grew. According to Stanford research psychologist Jamil Zaki, humans developed larger eye whites than other primates (among other physiological traits) to easily track one another’s gaze, and intricate facial muscles to better express our emotions. Back then, if we didn’t empathize, we were ousted by our clan and left to die alone.
Today, we live solo lives by design. Even pre-COVID-19, social isolation was baked into our culture. Nearly a third of US households are inhabited by just one person, which comes at a very high personal cost. Research tells us that people who experience long periods of loneliness develop serious health problems including cardiovascular disease and dementia at much higher rates than people who don’t feel isolated.
To make matters worse, our sympathetic nervous system is perpetually exposed to a diet of 24/7 stimuli with the dictum “When it bleeds, it leads.” Seeing so much pain and suffering every day can cause apathy, depression, and anxiety. No wonder psychologist John F. Schumaker concluded, “Never before has a cultural system inculcated its followers to suppress so much of their humanity.”
Seven issues require our urgent attention.
Predatory capitalism has created abhorrent wealth inequality and is fundamentally at odds with planetary boundaries. It’s hard to fathom, but of the top hundred global economic entities, sixty-nine are now corporations. A system once celebrated for “lifting all boats” has become degenerate in its asymmetry. If we care about humanity and life on our planet, we must seek alternative economic approaches animated by a new set of values, including empathy.
Our social fabric is in tatters thanks to crippling polarization. A robust democracy always includes discord, but today’s divisions run dangerously deep. In a zero-sum game, voters loathe their opponents, fomenting the potential for violence. To avoid that outcome, we must exercise empathy to restore mutual respect and common ground.
Our mental health is also under siege. Five years ago, the world’s first minister of loneliness was appointed by the United Kingdom. Now, in the aftermath of COVID-19 and mass social distancing, the rates of chronic anxiety, addiction, depression, self-harm, mental illness, domestic violence, and suicide have risen everywhere. Despite our 24/7 digital connectivity, we are desperate for human connection and a sense of belonging and we need more empathy to transcend the era of social isolation.
Our ethos of materialism and consumerism worsened by our addiction to social media and hollow celebrity culture is making us more selfish, eroding our self-worth and harming our mental health. We human beings suffer without meaning in our lives. In response, we must turn inward to reflect deeply on our values and purpose and ignite a cultural renaissance of brotherly and sisterly love rooted in empathy.
Our Western bias toward science, objectivity, and linear thinking is limiting our capacity to problem-solve. Neuroscience has revealed that our brains have an analytical network for critical thinking and a social network for empathy and moral reasoning. To address our wicked problems, we must engage both sides of our brains holistically and embrace alternative ways of knowing. This includes tapping into embodied, metaphysical, and spiritual wisdom. Indigenous cultures have much to teach us in this regard.
Society’s dated model of leadership fails to grasp that organizations are living systems. Most corporate leaders are hopelessly out of touch with their workforces, and the “old, stale, male” paradigm of command and control must be replaced by conscious leadership that’s inclusive, generative, and empathic.
Finally, sexism, systemic racism, and other forms of discrimination continue to run rampant. To be clear, misogyny and white supremacy harm women and people of color the most, but wherever oppression lives, so, too, does an insidious form of social cancer. Humans cannot flourish at the expense of one another. Only unjust systems make that so. We must decolonize our hearts and minds. That’s why empathy, which unites us in our shared humanity, holds so much promise.
I don’t pretend to have solutions to the biggest problems we face today, but thanks to my doctoral research and a couple of decades doing impact work, here’s what I know for sure: The world needs more empathy. Humans need empathy to thrive. Everyone is capable of empathy. And sustained purposeful empathy can elevate our lives as we change the world.
This is an excerpt from the introduction to Purposeful Empathy.