Improve Empathy with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“As we practice mindfulness we learn to be with our own emotions and difficulties, which makes us become more able to deal with others. We can better empathize, but through the cultivation of kindness and compassion we are able to take care of ourselves and continue to help others.” – Gail Davies
Humans are social animals. This is a great asset for the species as the effort of the individual is amplified by cooperation. In primitive times, this cooperation was essential for survival. But in modern times it is also essential, not for survival but rather for making a living and for the happiness of the individual. This ability to cooperate is so essential to human flourishing that it is built deep into our DNA and is reflected in the structure of the human nervous system. Empathy and compassion are essential for appropriate social engagement and cooperation. In order for these abilities to emerge and strengthen, individuals must be able to see that other people are very much like themselves.
Mindfulness has been found to increase prosocial behaviors such as altruism, compassion and empathy. It is not known how mindfulness practice might do this. Mindfulness is actually a complex concept. There are thought to be five distinct facets of mindfulness; describing, observing, acting with awareness, non-judgement, and non-reactivity. It is not known which of these facets of mindfulness are important for the development of empathy.
In today’s Research News article “Mediating effect of mindfulness cognition on the development of empathy in a university context.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6472790/), De la Fuente-Anuncibay and colleagues recruited undergraduate students and separated them into students who had and had not previously practiced mindfulness. They were asked to complete measures of empathy and the five facets of mindfulness; describing, observing, acting with awareness, non-judgement, and non-reactivity.
They found that the students who practiced mindfulness were higher in their levels of empathy. They further found that mindfulness practice was related to higher levels of empathy directly and also indirectly, such that mindfulness practice was related to the five facets of mindfulness which were in turn related to higher levels of empathy. Further tests of structural models revealed that the mindfulness facets that were mediating the relationship of mindfulness practice with empathy were, observing, describing, and non-reactivity to inner experience.
These findings are correlational and so causation cannot be directly determined. But prior research has established that mindfulness practice is a causal factor in improving empathy. So, it is likely that the current results were due to causal connections. This suggests that mindfulness practice increases the individual’s ability to observe and describe present moment experience but not react to it and this improves empathy.
Empathy involves the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The results then suggest that being aware of what is transpiring in the moment but observing it dispassionately may be a key to empathy; seeing others plight without reacting overly emotionally may underlie the development of true empathy. By not reacting and being overwhelmed by one’s own emotions the individual may be better able to share the feelings of the other.
So, improve empathy with mindfulness.
“Learning to communicate with empathy can go a long way toward building more positivity in your relationships and reducing your stress. If we all focused more on listening and understanding each other, the world would be a lot less stressful—and a lot happier—place to live.” – Arthur P. Ciaramicoli
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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De la Fuente-Anuncibay, R., González-Barbadillo, Á., González-Bernal, J., Cubo, E., & PizarroRuiz, J. P. (2019). Mediating effect of mindfulness cognition on the development of empathy in a university context. PloS one, 14(4), e0215569. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0215569
Numerous interventions propose mindfulness training as a means of improving empathy. Our aim is to analyse the relationship between mindfulness practice and empathy through the mediating process of trait mindfulness. This sample comprised 264 undergraduate students (x¯=24,13years, SD = 11,39). The instruments used were Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire and Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. The indirect effect was calculated using 10.000 bootstrap samples for the bootstrap confidence intervals corrected for bias. Empathy improvement is mediated by changes in the cognitions derived from mindfulness (B = .346, p<.01). The direct effect of mindfulness practice on empathy disappears in presence of this mediator (B = .133, p>.05). Mindfulness interventions that aim to improve empathy should focus on three of its components; observing, describing and nonreactivity to inner experience. Given the significance of the results, the research must be extended to larger samples.