“The empathy economy is booming. Facts are out, feelings are in”
– Michael Rock, New York Times –
The human capacity and need for meaningful connections, interactions and relationships is undeniable. In a global economy driven by digital disruption, overachievement and sometimes extreme individualism, there is a shift happening which brings humanity to the centre of attention.
I’ve been interested in emotional intelligence and its role in today’s economy and societies around the world. I’ve looked at how school education is changing, how organisations are incorporating empathy into their processes and how people are seeking to heal their overstretched souls through ancient wisdoms such as yoga and mindfulness. And why becoming an expert of our own mind and feelings contributes to thriving in life.
I also looked at the role technology plays in that cultural shift since many think it has a negative impact on human interactions. But is technology to blame or we should focus on cultivating the values of humanity and encourage the evolution of both, side by side? After all, one of the most important ingredients in every innovation and entrepreneurship is the ability to look at the world from someone else’s perspective, understanding the needs and wants of people and providing solutions to those problems.
Arne Duncan, a former United States Secretary of Education, says: “the key factor of success for any society going forward is what percentage of its people are changemakers. Learning new literacy with empathy being the foundation is the new way forward.”
Meanwhile, The Onion jokes about scientists slowly introducing “normal, well adjusted and with the unusual abilities to view the world from others’ perspectives human beings” back into society and warns that “it was already far too late to halt the country’s dominant breed of humans—assholes—from spreading uncontrollably to every region on earth.”
“Obviously, we have taken great precautions before releasing these individuals into an environment where demonstrations of good sense, open-mindedness, and basic human empathy are perceived as signs of weakness and quickly preyed upon…”
What it actually means to empathise and why is it so important?
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work explains in this RSA short anime how empathy fuels connection whereas sympathy drives disconnection.
She relates to a study by Theresa Wiseman “A concept analysis of empathy” where Wiseman identified 4 key qualities of empathy: the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth, avoiding judgement, recognising the emotions of others and the ability to communicate about it all.
Brown says empathy means feeling with people and it’s a vulnerable choice that can be strengthened through practice.
Molly Barker, an Ashoka Fellow Founder/Vision Keeper who created the Start Empathy project (more about it further in the article) beautifully described empathy as “a portal into connection, into relationship, into compassion and understanding. It’s a portal into every other emotional experience we have with another human being”.
The topic of empathy seems so popular and important that the world’s first Empathy Museum has even been created in South London. Its creator, Roman Krzaric thinks that a failure to appreciate other people’s viewpoints, experiences and feelings is at the root of prejudice, conflict and inequality.
“I believe empathy is fiery and powerful and radical and that it can create a revolution…a revolution of human relationships.”
His creative art project is an experiential space for stepping into the shoes of others, literally! People are invited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and then write a short story about it.
I’ve also found studies showing that empathy can be constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds.
The famous saying, “One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic,” captures the inequality.
One incident that came to my mind here was the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France that eventually killed 17 people. The response worldwide was truly moving with foreign and French leaders marching together with millions of people in a historic rally under the social media hashtag: #JesuisCharlie.
Meanwhile in Nigeria explosives strapped to a young girl killed at least 20 people. The weekend before the terror attack on Charlie Hedbo, Boko Haram militants killed 2,000 people.
Both attacks were incredibly horrifying but Nigeria’s case somehow disappeared under the French tragedy. Although I personally think it’s far more complex, one could question the bias of empathy within society.
In a recent NYT article discussing their research findings on empathy, the authors joined Brene Brown in disagreeing that empathy is a flawed emotion, defining it instead as a choice.
“We believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”
Their studies also show that people with so called empathy deficit disorder are also capable of that emotion; it’s just that they don’t typically choose to show it. In their view, anyone can learn the skills necessary to expand empathy beyond their prejudices or limited thinking. Good will and education seem to be a key to making that change.
Flawed or not, empathy seems important enough to have grabbed the attention of many researchers, sociologists, psychologists, business people and educators.
Changes in the education system around the world.
Ashoka’s Start Empathy is a wonderful initiative I came across while searching for data supporting my argument on the value of bringing emotional intelligence to schools. It was created to identify, support and connect innovative schools around the world and it’s a great resource for teachers and people to help in cultivating empathy and other important life skills.
They recently partnered with the Entertainment Industry Foundation in America to create a national education campaign called ‘Think It Up’. The aim is to empower kids through skills like teamwork, leadership and problem solving with an emphasis on empathy. They believe such abilities helps young people enter the world of adulthood more confidently and succeed as change-makers. Students graduate with a sense of purpose and the courage to innovate. They find strength to step out of their comfort zones and change themselves first in order to change the world around them.
Here is a video of students in one of the change-maker high schools in Tucson, AZ talking about what it means for them to be empowered through learning important life skills.
Roots of Empathy is another charitable organisation and a model for social innovation that offers empathy-based programming for children. They currently operate in the US, Canada, the UK, some parts of Europe and New Zealand with a focus on perspective taking skills that enable students to gain insight into how others feel and develop a sense of social responsibility for each other. Their two programs (for children in elementary school and children aged three-to-five) were found to reduce aggression and ultimately contributed to less bullying and meanness at schools.
“In society, we generally measure what we treasure. Traditionally, schools have measured children’s competence in subject areas. Roots of Empathy measure the affective side of children’s knowledge, understanding, and attitudes.”
Mary Gordon, Founder/President, Roots of Empathy
Looking at the later stages of education I found another signal of things changing – Harvard is redesigning the college admission process, from super-human to more human.
The Making Caring Common project by Harvard explored the problem of favouring over achievement and affluence and suggested replacing it with a more fair admission process, earning the endorsement of over 80 stakeholders, deans, professors and high school counsellors from colleges across the US.
Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University said they will now look for things like “authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good”.
Although I fully support changes to education and admissions, I think we need to be very careful when measuring things like empathy and authenticity. It could turn something helpful into just another misguided target. Giving students the tools and encouraging their use is different to creating another performance expectation in something that is quite hard to measure.
So is the concept brand new? And if not, why are authorities around the world only now realising the potential and importance of emotional literacy?
Looking back in time I came across older studies showing how crucial empathy and emotional literacy are for successful learning. In 1990 an academic researcher called Jones published his findings that in addition to knowledge, successful learners need confidence about themselves. They need the ability to understand the feelings, motives and behaviours of others and the ability to accurately communicate it all.
“Successful students often recognise that much of their success involves their ability to communicate with others … they are also able to view themselves and the world through the eyes of others. This means … examining beliefs and circumstances of others, keeping in mind the goal of enhanced understanding and appreciation. Successful students value sharing experiences with persons of different backgrounds as enriching their lives.”
Again, the ability to empathise seems to be behind successful communication and human interaction, which then contributes to accomplishment in life.
My favourite examples of social change usually come from one of the Nordic countries. They seem to embrace gender equality programmes well and always try to make life better for people in their countries. Their governments act quickly and lead the change through good understanding of what modern societies need for harmonious functioning.
Finland recently tested a new educational blueprint, which moves away from a strict individual subject structure to more meaningful teaching by topics or a broad context. The aim is to implement this model across all schools by 2020. They want to teach kids “what’s the point of learning this” and I think that’s fantastic! This should really make the topics fly and have real value. Say goodbye to dry facts and hello to applied knowledge teaching. This plus empathy skills and we are onto something really amazing, meaningful and useful for life. And if you think the old school education is still valuable, Educhair is for you!
What role technology plays in today’s economy and social interactions? Is it really that evil?
Technology changed the dynamic of the world’s workforce, saving many people from often fatal injuries or boring tasks on one hand, and on the other created the need to adapt and gain new skills. Just watch how Boston Dynamics, the company equireed by Google X in 2013, evolves their robots and imagine how they can be used by Amazon for instance. Here is the latest on Atlas and its new version designed to handle different outdoor and indoor tasks.
Technology has also changed the way we communicate. A lot of social interactions are now taking place on the Facebook wall, where even spouses publicly post very personal messages to each other. AI and cognitive computing are said to be the next big digital disruption and I think the fear of what it all means for people’s jobs, social life and wellbeing is making us appreciate more skills that perhaps we took for granted in the past.
Sociologists and psychologists often talk about the negative impact the excess or bad use of digital platforms has on the quality of human interactions and relationships.
Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been observing how people react and adapt to new technologies that change the way we communicate for 30 years now. In her recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle argues that texts, social network activities, emails, instant messages or any other rapid way of online communication, have replaced face-to-face conversation, which is “the most human thing we do”. She also argues that the heavy reliance on devices and splitting our attention can decrease our capacity for empathy.
From her interview with The Atlantic: “The empathy that I’m talking about is a psychological capacity to put yourself in the place of another person and imagine what they are going through…We suppress this capacity by putting ourselves in environments where we’re not looking at each other in the eye, not sticking with the other person long enough or hard enough to follow what they’re feeling.”
Sherry Turkle says we need meaningful conversations in our families, classrooms, and workplaces, to help us develop self-knowledge, empathy, and intellectual skills. She highlighted the aim is to increase conversations that are essential to humanity rather than be anti-technology.
A beautiful example of how technology can be used to create meaningful conversations in our families is StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit oral history organisation designed to collect and listen to people’s stories. They’ve recently launched their new project called The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Founder Dave Isay encouraged teachers to introduce their free app to teenagers to record interviews with their elderly over the Thanksgiving Holiday.
They created a teacher’s guide to help incorporate the project into classrooms and communities. The guide suggested “great questions” which teens could use during their interviews to help them ask about the most intimate and meaningful stories like: “Tell me about love of your life” or “Has your life been different from what you imagined as a teenager?” With categories to consider like family heritage, grandparetnt, growing up and school, family heritage, love & relationships, working, military service, religion and spirituality, the questions allowed to get beyond the every day conversations and discover something new about their families.
The response was overwhelming and more than 50,000 interviews and stories were uploaded via app to The Library of Congress.
Students gained a lot of value from creating moments of an intimate connection. They learnt how to actively listen and how to handle emotions during this kind of conversation. It was a wonderful experience for them and as one teacher in Atlanta said: “It was a powerful exercise in empathy for an age group that is not always empathetic”
Dave Isay recalls being asked by someone:
“Are they going to be able to do this? Can teenagers do this?”…
“And they’ve just done it beautifully.” he said
The stories can be heard at storycorp.me.
Believing in the youth and giving them the opportunity and tools to evolve these skills will certainly help in appreciating the values, especially as they watch themselves engaging in more meaningful connections through empathy and deep listening.
An interesting point I found was from Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University who specialises in the effects of technology. He worked on a recent study that measured the impact of spending time online on real-world empathy.
His findings say a virtual empathy as a response to others online exists but the value of it is not comparable to the real world empathy. His study also revealed that video games are mostly responsible for a reduced real-world empathy and going online had less of an impact here.
Adulthood, business and work skills – what matters now and will matter going forward?
Working in the digital industry for over a decade I’ve seen it evolving towards building human connections and organisational systems that are designed more around people and value emotional skills. Technology became mainstream and what truly matters isn’t anymore the access to it but the ability of businesses to truly engage with customers’ and also the employees’ needs. Human-centered design and other popular methods used by businesses today are based on ability to empathise with people’s problems and needs. Currently there is no better way to solve problems and no data or technology can replace “people” skills. What works best is the combination of all.
Design thinking methodologies are based on balancing technical, commercial and human considerations with ability to empathise at the heart of it.
Chris Flink who works for IDEO lead an interesting workshop/pop-up class at Stanford University called “Designing Empathy Based Organisations”. It considered three basic levers for organisational design: organisational culture, organisational structure (informal and formal), and organisational routines and looked at combining both efficiency and empathy in business.
Team at IDEO has been working on expanding the power of design thinking by helping organisations to scale and sustain empathy, highlighting its value and long term impact on the business. They highlight that “Although IDEO puts empathy and real stories first, we increasingly use quantitative data to provide context for our insights”
When looking at the most valuable leadership skills I also found a strong link to emotional literacy. How many true leaders you had a pleasure to work with and what are the qualities that come to your mind first when you think of them? It seems like to be a great leader also means to be an empathetic leader.
Daniel Goleman, author of ” Emotional Intelligence” and “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence”, says the ability to identify and monitor emotions, your own and others is crucial in managing relationships in business. “The best leaders in the corporate world have qualities associated with emotional intelligence.”
Yoga and mindfulness as a way to self discovery, emotional awareness and mental wellbeing
And finally the recent boom of yoga and mindfulness, where is the need coming from? Following the trend ‘healthy is the new wealthy’ people are looking into ancient methods not only for the physical fitness but to gain knowledge of their mind, “occupied with thoughts and driven by feelings”, as one of my yoga teachers said.
I’ve recently done a yoga teacher training myself and spent 200 hours experiencing tough workout yes, but most of all I met many beautiful people who sometimes for the first time ever, vulnerably shared their life stories and allowed themselves to express their raw feelings. It was all part of the process to make us more authentic teachers.
A large portion of people is signing up for the training to improve their asana practice and learn about the philosophy of yoga. For many people it’s a journey of not only becoming a teacher but to unlock the conditioned mind. A path of understanding your own emotions and feelings, becoming more authentic and empathetic and therefore better connected with one another. Yoga highlights the importance of building communities based on compassion and meaningful connection.
To achieve the higher level of consciousness in yoga means to follow a discipline. Yoga practice is a source of joy for serious students as “Shatapatha Brahmanaan”, an ancient scripture describing Vedic rituals states. Yoga focuses the student’s mind and allow to become independent of others, gaining day by day spiritual power. It helps student to sleep peacefully, gain insights and the capacity to master senses and therefore life.
Highly recommend a good read on all the branches and teachings of yoga, a book called “The Deeper Dimension of Yoga” by Georg Feuerstain
Combining education with yoga
I recently visited South Africa for the second time after 2 years and I’m always curiously watching the changes and moods in this post apartheid society. In Johannesburg, while speaking to a young student, I found out about Maharishi Institute that focuses on reviving and developing South African youth generation. The university is completely free for the first year and focuses on developing the student as a person first as opposed to jumping straight to factual topics. After that, students must work four hours a day in any number of jobs throughout the university to cover their own living costs. Another interesting thing about the institute is its connection with the yoga world. It was named after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who brought Consciousness-Based-Education to the world. Maharishi means ‘great teacher’ or ‘great seer’.
“At the Maharishi Institute we are training the great future teachers and business leaders of the nation. Maharishi travelled around the world many times and out of nothing built thousands of schools and clinics, everywhere transforming the poverty of thinking around education, rehabilitation, psychology, economics, agriculture, and architecture. Consciousness-Based centres are running in over 63 countries world-wide with students from every culture, religion, background, and all walks of life. Through his example, every student has the opportunity to grow to the highest level of human enlightenment.”
So each day at this university begins with meditation or yoga, which helps the youth in dealing with their often violent environments. Combining this with tangible skills in computing and business management and the confidence gained through exposure to real work experience, has had a great impact on the university and the youth’s performance.
There are many great benefits of yoga and mindfulness being incorporated into our life but Guardian however, warns us of this unregulated mass industry. Some good points in the article on acknowledging the potential side affects it can have on people and on using/abusing the methods by business organisations to cover the unhealthy work environments.
Will Davies, senior lecturer at Goldsmiths and author of The Happiness Industry says “our mental health has become a money-making opportunity. The measurement of our mental and emotional states at work is advancing rapidly at the moment and businesses are increasingly aware of the financial costs that stress, depression and anxiety saddle them with.” “Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term.”
The positive impact of yoga and mindfulness was confirmed by many scientists though – if responsibly used of course.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School conducted a research and brain scan tests to better understand the impact of meditation. She found that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Her second study was a test on a group of people who never mediated and were sent on a 8 week meditation retreat. She found differences in brain volume in four regions: the posterior cingulated – which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance, the left hippocampus- which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation, the temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, – associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion and the Pons, where many of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced. The amygdala, the area of the brain, which plays role in anxiety, fear and overall stress, got smaller in the group of people that went through the 8 weeks retreat.
Whichever way we decide to learn about emotional literacy it seems important to add it to the bag of other skills. Not only because it’s popular and trendy and it will help us in our careers but because it creates a healthier, joyful and resilient society.
I believe in education that combines emotional literacy and other valuable life skills (finance, world cultures to name a couple) and brings life to the school topics through contextual teaching. Incorporating ancient wisdom in form of mindfulness and yoga to help kids develop their own strengths, confidence and personalities, to teach them mindful way of living from the early age, so they become more open to the world and better equipped to deal with its challenges. This is going to have a positive impact on individuals and society overall. It will and it does contributes to us thriving in life and being better humans, more respectful, tolerant and not prone to discrimination for whatever reason. It helps us discover great things and innovate. And technology is there to help and serve humans in the best way it can. Emotional literacy ensures it is being used responsibly and ethically, so it all can have their own space in our society.
Organisations will benefit from the ability to incorporate and sustain those skills in their culture and values. Not to replace any other expertise but to compliment them and empower people to create great things with humans, wildlife and the planet in mind.