Earlier this month I went to a talk by Roman Krzanaric, one of three talks on ‘health, wealth and happiness’ held by Salon London at the Adam Street club, just off the Strand.

Image by Geraint Davies

Image by Geraint Davies

Roman told us all about the six habits of highly empathic people, and how empathy, “the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective“, is not only a good (in the moral sense) thing to do, but it is also good for you. Roman argues that practising empathy will improve your relationships with your friends, partners, family, colleagues (even your enemies!) and enhance your understanding and appreciation of the world around you.

Empathy and social connection are also good for your health: Professor John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, observed dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age, and found that these differences can be linked to the quality of the individual’s personal relationships. Loneliness can even shorten life expectancy.

Before I go any further I should explain that empathy is very different from sympathy. Sympathy is the recognition that someone else is in a bad place, but it stops far short of what Roman describes as the ‘imaginative leap’ required to empathise and really step into the shoes of another person and understand their concerns, their challenges and their vulnerabilities. Research professor and best-selling author Dr. Brene Brown created this fantastic three minute ‘RSA Short’ animation to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Roman urged us to start cultivating curiosity about strangers, and to use this curiosity to challenge our prejudices and better understand the uniqueness of individual experience. For example, in London a lot of people work in financial services, and suffer under the stereotype of ‘greedy banker’, a hangover from the post-credit crunch blame mentality. The mainstream media created a stereotype of bankers as a ruthless, amoral group, cut off from society with no concern other than their own self-interest. But this is an unlikely, ‘panto baddie’ style evaluation of a career path that attracts a wide range of personalities, from the deeply conscientious and socially responsible, through to the ‘selfish capitalist’ stereotype. In order to understand and empathise with someone, we need to strip away any pre-concieved notions and observe that person as a unique and complex individual.

Roman encouraged us to become more empathic through practising the art of conversation, and becoming more sensitive listeners. He also gave some beautiful examples of ‘grassroots’ empathy projects from around the world, including an initiative called ‘Hello Peace’, set up to facilitate empathy between Israelis and Palestinians who are affected by conflicts over land and resources in the middle east. A free telephone line connects Israelis and Palestinians who want to talk about ‘reconciliation, tolerance and peace’. In its first five years the project logged more than a million calls.

Roman argues that empathy is an integral part of human nature, and speaks fluently about the evidence from evolutionary biology and neuroscience that supports this claim. His book Empathy Revolution draws on ten years of research into this subject, and calls on us to practice empathy in our daily lives in order to defeat prejudice and bring about positive social change in our communities (and beyond). He has also created an amazing Empathy Library, where people can post recommendations and read reviews about books and films that help us to empathise with people from different backgrounds and gain a greater understanding of the world through their perspectives.

So how does all of this relate to mindfulness? Professor Paul Gilbert OBE explains in his latest book Mindful Compassion that ‘compassion’, comes from the Latin word ‘compati’, meaning ‘to suffer with’. This has very clear parallels with how Roman Krznaric and Brene Brown define empathy. Paul Gilbert argues in Mindful Compassion that in order to cultivate compassion we must first practice mindfulness. Paul writes: “we need to be aware of where our mind habitually goes and learn to direct our faculty of attention in ways that serve us. This is the role of mindfulness in the context of compassion training.”

Researchers have also observed a greater ability to adopt other people’s perspective and manage stress by people who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques.

While this data is useful, I think it brings to light something that we all know in our hearts: practising mindfulness makes us calm, happy and grounded, and this is a perfect environment for compassionate and empathic behaviour. It makes you happy, and it makes those around you happy: it’s a win-win situation!

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