One of the least-praised pleasures in life -- and yet one that is probably most likely to bring lasting happiness -- is the ability to be happy for others. When we think about empathy, we tend to think of feeling other people's pain -- but feeling other people's joy gets short shrift That must change if we want to have a more empathetic society.
While working on our forthcoming book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered (my co-author is leading child trauma expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD), one of the most common questions I've gotten is, "What can parents do to raise more empathetic children?"
And, as I talked about sharing joy with a friend last week, I thought again about just how important the pleasurable part of empathy is in parenting. Sharing pleasure is actually one of our earliest experiences: consider the way a baby's smile lights up a room and all the silly things adults will do to elicit these little expressions of happiness and connection. Videos of laughing babies delight us for the same reason. [I dare you to resist the laughing quads!]
Cuteness is nature's way of getting us through the most difficult and demanding parts of parenting: if babies weren't so darn cute, few people would be able to take the dirty diapers and other drudgery of caring for them. But their smiles and laughs are overwhelmingly infectious.
It's this same early dance between parent and child that instills empathy in the first place. We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy. However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning. The 'words" and "grammar" of empathy are taught first via early nurturing experiences.
Without responsive parenting, though, babies don't learn to connect people with pleasure. If your smiles aren't returned with joy, it's as though you are being asked to learn to speak without anyone ever talking to you. The brain expects certain experiences to guide its development -- if these don't occur at the right time, the capacity to learn them can be reduced or even lost.
So, most of us come into the world and receive parenting that implicitly teaches us that joy is shared. Babies don't just smile spontaneously -- they also smile radiantly back when people smile at them. The back and forth of these smiles, the connection, disconnection, reconnection and its rhythm teaches us that your happiness is mine, too.
Over time, unfortunately, we learn that we are separate beings and sometimes come to see other people's happiness as a threat or a sign that we've lost a competition, rather than something we can share.
This, of course, is natural, too: we are also normally born with an acute sense of fairness and justice that makes us sensitive to say, whether our older brother's toys are nicer than ours. While cries of "that's not fair" are the bane of many parents' existence, they're not just selfish. They're part of a social sense that we should receive equal treatment.
How, then, can we help kids to develop both their sense of justice and the ability to share joy?
One key is making the implicit explicit. When we see kids smiling in response to others, point out how seeing someone else smile made them feel good; when we see that they enjoy our reaction to their artwork and gifts, praise them for being happy for us. Saying that "it's better to give than receive," may ring hollow -- pointing out when children are actually experiencing the feeling of taking joy in giving is much more powerful.
Allowing children to own this ability and recognize it in themselves will also encourage it -- helping them to define themselves as the kind of people who are happy for other people will make them feel like good people, too. Encouraging such an identity will reinforce other positive behaviors as well. Changing behavior to suit an identity you prefer is actually one of the easiest ways to make changes.
Further, rather than calling kids selfish or self-interested when they protest about someone else getting what seems like something better, reframe this as a concern for justice and ask them to look out for when what seems unfair is unfair in their own favor, too. Children who see themselves as being "bad" or "selfish" will unfortunately take on that identity, too -- if they don't recognize their own prosocial behavior, they can't enhance it and may embrace a very negative view of their own desires and drives.
Sadly, as a society, for centuries we have embraced a view of human nature that is selfish and competitive -- with evolution being described as a contest in which the most ruthless are always likely to be the winners. In fact, research is now showing that, at least in humans, kindness is also a critical part of fitness.
For one, both men and women typically describe kindness as one of the top three characteristics they seek in a mate (sense of humor and intelligence are the other top two picks; gender differences in valuing attractiveness and resources come lower on the list).
Second, the ability to nurture and connect is critical for the survival of human children: in hunter/gatherer societies, the presence of older siblings and grandmothers can be even more important to child survival than the presence of fathers according to Sarah Hrdy's research, suggesting that cooperation in childrearing made genetic survival more likely -- not competition.
This means that human nature isn't the selfish, sociopathic murk we've been told it is. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. To create a more empathetic world, we need to own this as adults as we teach it to our kids.