Did you know that empathy can lead to being more social and purposeful, which can then lead to a happier life?
Dr. Belle Leong, a clinical psychologist and clinical therapist and teaching fellow at Harvard University, discovered this in a recently released book, “How to Navigate Life,” by Tim Klein. Both Liang and Klein have spent years supporting and mentoring young people as they navigate the challenges that come with life, school and career. In their research, they discovered that compassion is a key to living a happy life.
“Empaths tend to draw that out in others around them,” Liang said. Researchers have found that empathic people are physically healthier and can increase the physical health of those around them. For example, better beds and more compassionate doctors have healthier patients. Empathy reduces racial bias and other biases between diverse people.
In their research, Liang and Klein assessed middle and high school students in a variety of environments. They found that parenting characterized by autonomy support (when children feel their parents trust their judgment) and trusting communication (when children choose to tell their parents about their problems and difficulties) are associated with sociability/empathy.
Compassion is then linked with youth purpose, and purpose is defined as having a long-term goal or aspiration that is personally meaningful and contributes to the world, Leong said.
Young people who have experienced adversity and advantage can lead to psychological growth, especially when it comes to compassion and purpose in life, Klein said.
So, how do parents teach children empathy?
“One of the most powerful ways to teach empathy is to build children’s empathy and trust for others by first acting that way toward them,” Liang said. “Parents should foster in their children a sense that they are trusted, that they have a close relationship with their parents, and that they feel psychologically safe to communicate with their parents about sensitive and challenging issues in their lives. Then, in turn, children who have experienced compassion and empathy have the blueprint and psychological resources to treat others in this way. .
For children who have experienced adversity, ask questions like: How did this adversity affect you? Who helped you during this challenging time? What support would have been helpful if you didn’t have it? Based on your experience, how would you like to support someone else going through the same thing? How can you use your own experiences to help other people going through the same thing?
For children with limited adversity, ask them to reflect on their strengths by asking questions like: What are you grateful for in your own life? Why? How does it make your life easier? What would life be like if you didn’t have this particular advantage? How can life be difficult? Not everyone is given this advantage, so can you think of people who don’t have it in their lives? How do you think that makes their lives difficult? How can you use your advantage to help other people?
As children reflect on their advantages, they develop gratitude, which then leads to empathy.
For teachers and child care providers, Klein said they can teach empathy in a similar way.
“They can give students an opportunity to understand their own strengths and weaknesses,” Klein said. “Classrooms also lend themselves to community learning. Teachers can provide opportunities to help students celebrate commonalities and differences. Research reveals that people feel empathy and compassion for those who are like them.
Teaching empathy can be sidelined to focus on the pressures of academic success or career success, but researchers say it’s critical to growth and happiness.
“Cultivating empathy and ultimately purpose is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do if you want your child to be happy and successful as they navigate their lives,” Klein said.
For more information on Belle Leong or Tim Klein, go to howtonavigate.com.
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