Empathy is a skill. Here’s how to cultivate it

"Empathy is something like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies; put to work, it grows."
man holds mirror reflecting sunset

The apparent trend toward division and away from empathy isn’t irreversible, according to new research.

Empathy is a skill that one can cultivate over time, Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki finds, and with the right practices, anyone—even the most close-minded individuals—can come to care about other people in healthy and sustainable ways.

While empathy offers numerous social benefits—for example, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care—empathy might not be a good thing, Zaki says. When healthcare professionals care too much, they are at elevated risk for burnout, depression, and trauma from over-empathizing with others’ suffering, he says.

These are some of the key findings to emerge from Zaki’s research into the various dimensions of empathy. Zaki has brought these insights, many from his own research, into his new book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World (Crown, 2019).

Here, Zaki talks about what he learned about empathy, from experiments he led in his own lab to the research and interviews he conducted for the book:

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