Interestingly, I’ve been asked this question (or something similar) many times over the years. But I’m not sure those who ask it really realise that within, there are several assumptions implicit that each deserve consideration.
Firstly, does empathy require reviving?
Secondly, if so, can empathy actually be increased?
Thirdly, is the world really selfish?
And finally, would increasing empathy provide a remedy for selfishness?
So, let’s address each of these in turn. With online bullying, road rage, increasing stress and pressure in workplaces (to name just a few examples) it would be easy to think there’s an epidemic of what some have called, an empathy deficit. In support of this, a number of studies (mostly from the USA) have found that self-reported empathy has in fact declined over the last few decades.
Alongside these findings, it’s been hypothesised that this empathy decline can be attributed to increasing social isolation; and increasing division (that is, the extent to which groups of people who’re different interact less and less). It’s also been suggested that higher levels of self-reported stress might be having a dehumanising effect on some; if we’re so worried about our own problems, how can we worry about others?
If, therefore, we accept that there is an empathy deficit, we then need to ask whether it can be increased. Based on the aforementioned causal factors, it could be argued that increasing social cohesion and tolerance and understanding for others might help. But is this possible? And would this be enough?
Well the first thing to note is that there is, indeed, hope. A Stanford University study found that those who believed empathy could be increased, and that it wasn’t just a “fixed” trait, were more likely to spend more time listening to others and demonstrated a greater willingness to help. Other studies have shown that empathy can be increased by practising listening skills and by practising mindfulness regularly.
So, it does appear as though empathy might need reviving; and it also appears as though it can be revived via the practice of relatively simple, but effective strategies.
What then, of selfishness? Let’s begin with the most common differentiation, made by most, between selfishness and selflessness. For most, the former is bad and the latter good. But before we move on, I’d like to challenge these definitions. These terms are neither good nor bad; nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, the reality is that we’re all both selfish and selfless; we give, and we take. And that’s OK.
Selfishness, then, within limits does not exclude selflessness; and what definitely doesn’t get enough attention are the many good things done by the many good people each and every day. Altruism, the concern for the wellbeing of others, is far more prevalent than most realise. Unfortunately, however, these positive stories don’t make the front pages of our main stream press publications or the headlines on TV or radio news. We have to look a bit harder to find them, but they are there; and even just a cursory glance at online sites like Good News Week and Upworthy remind us that positivity and inspiration are all around us.
In conclusion, then, empathy might be lower than we’d like, and selfishness might be more prevalent than we’d like. At the same time, however, empathy and selflessness can be taught and practised and increased which is a very positive finding. Further, in my humble opinion, it’s not so much that empathy and hope need to be revived but more so that they need to be remembered and highlighted. If we shine a light on what’s right, we might all find there’s more in the world about which to be happy!