Empathy and Meaningful Relationships
Episode #6 of the course Coping with loneliness in the modern world by Sonia Chauhan
In this lesson, I will expound on what I believe to be the single most important factor for a meaningful and fulfilled life: empathy.
The world’s longest research study is on what makes people happy, and the findings say that good interpersonal relationships generate lasting happiness . But why am I telling you this?
Because it’s all connected: Loneliness is an expression of latent unhappiness. So, if you feel constantly lonely, a good question to ask yourself is: What is the quality of your relationships?
Surprise! Selfishness Makes You Lonely
Social neuroscience pioneer Professor John Cacioppo undertook decade-long research on loneliness . He found that self-centeredness contributes heavily toward our state of loneliness, identifying these two factors as reciprocal to each other. So, the more self-centered you are this year, the lonelier you will be next year.
Cacioppo suggests that the primary method of treating loneliness is “to retrain how people think about others,” i.e., by showing empathy toward those around us.
Now, the question is: What is empathy and how does one practice it? Simply put, empathy is listening to another person’s story as if it was your own story.
Make a note of this: Empathy is a connection, not a response. You don’t need to make it better or show them a silver lining. Just being there for someone while they are going through a rough phase, that’s empathy.
Your Challenge: Practicing Empathy
Exercise 1: Be present when you listen. When you listen to your partner talk about their day or a friend ranting about a working weekend, listen with the intent of being present in the moment. Put down any distractions, look into their eyes, and give them your full attention.
Empathy involves understanding things from another person’s perspective. You need to listen, really listen, to be able to get into their perspective.
Exercise 2: Be vocal when you speak. A core quality of empathy is that it gives us the ability to connect with others, and that’s a two-way street. You can’t truly form a connection unless you’re willing to open up. You can start within the circle of your family and close friends. During conversations, don’t just keep it about your job or some project. Talk about your fears and your feelings. Be vocal about your emotions.
Exercise 3: Create a space to practice empathy. The greatest barrier to practicing empathy is prejudice, for we often judge those whom we fail to understand. To overcome prejudice, we need to find a dedicated method to meet with strangers and listen to their perspectives.
Philosopher Roman Krznaric pitches joining or even organizing a “Human Library” event as a method to cultivate empathy . It’s a library of sorts where there are people instead of books. You borrow a person for an hour-long conversation, where you listen to their story and ask your questions.
For some people, that may sound like an uncomfortable proposition. Remember, meaningful connections, however odd, are the best way to dissipate loneliness. It will, of course, require hard work from your end.
Tips from My Life
Give others and yourself time. Relationships are an organic process that cannot be built overnight.
Understand what it is that you feel specifically comfortable with. If you feel better in a smaller group, go for that.
It’s okay if someone does not want to be your friend. That will happen and that’s okay. Keep moving on.
In my next lesson, I will help you understand how creative arts can help us better understand our inner maladies, especially loneliness.
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown
 “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness” by Robert Waldinger at TED Conference
 “Reciprocal Influences between Loneliness and Self-Centeredness” by John T. Cacioppo, Hsi Yuan Chen, and Stephanie Cacioppo
 “Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It” by Roman Krznaric at Talks at Google
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