Why Empathy is Essential to a Culture of Health

Apr 11, 2014, 11:34 AM, Posted by

Everyone knows it is hard to get 2-year-olds to do anything on a schedule. They want to do everything their way, on their own time. As you can imagine, trying to get my twins out the door each morning—let alone take a bath or eat a meal, can be quite a challenge. After trying a number of different parenting methods, I have discovered that the one way I can usually motivate them is to talk about feelings, and get them to recognize how their actions affect their sibling. Just yesterday, the only way I could get my son out of the bath was by telling him that his sister was sad and lonely waiting for him. And then, and only then, did he move.

Building empathy has been a critical strategy in my household of late—not only because it helps motivate them, but also because it is an important part of their social development. Lately I have been thinking about empathy on a larger scale, beyond my household, and how critical it is to building a Culture of Health.

Most people don't think about empathy as a key to health, but it is profoundly important. Individuals need to be able to relate to one another in order to succeed in all social settings— school, work, and play. People who lack empathy make decisions that not only hurt themselves, but others around them. Unfortunately, when kids are exposed to violence or experience traumatic events, it can have a lasting impact on their ability to empathize with others. This is why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports Child First, Head Start Trauma Smart, the Nurse-Family Partnership, and other promising solutions that intervene early in one’s life—to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop these skills.

At a macro level, empathy is the lifeblood of any system of health—it gives us all a shared stake in being healthy and helping others to thrive as well. I recently attended the TED conference in Vancouver, and I was fascinated and inspired by the different TED speakers who shared their personal stories of how empathy changed their lives for the better.

Take, for example, Zak Ebrahim, who grew up having a terrorist for a father, and being a target for bullies. He shared with us how growing up in such a negative environment made him more empathetic—eventually motivating him to become a peace activist. His words: “The son does not have to follow the ways of the father” are still echoing with me.

Or, Shaka Senghor, a writer, teacher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Fellow—and an ex-convict. He talked about how a letter he received from his son while in jail inspired him to change his life. After growing up in a culture of violence, he is now dedicated to changing the system. For Senghor, the key to a Culture of Health is for society to “embrace a more empathetic approach to how we approach mass incarceration.”  As Senghor says, “anyone can have a transformation if we give them the space...Misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life.”

For both Ebrahim and Senghor, empathy turned them away from a life of violence to one of health.

The TED conference also introduced cutting-edge work to help people understand and experience empathy first hand—bringing us another step closer to a Culture of Health. Chris Kluwe, a former professional football player, spoke about using Google Glass to create an augmented reality that literally showed us what it looks like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. He asked us to imagine what this technology could do for a teacher who is trying to get her students to empathize with victims of bullies. Another speaker, Wendy Chung, talked about how Google Glass and an earpiece could enable a social coach to help kids with autism learn to navigate new social situations, much like a seeing-eye dog helps those who are visually impaired.

Listening to these inspiring stories reinvigorated my belief that building empathy is fundamental to building a Culture of Health. How can we learn from people like Ebrahim or Senghor, who turned away from violence once they reawakened their capacity for empathy?  And how can new tools, like those discussed by Chung and Kluwe, make it possible for everyone to develop life skills like empathy.

How have you seen the power of empathy used to improve health, either on a personal level or at a community level? Please share your stories here. (And if you have any additional tips for motivating 2-year-olds to follow directions, you can share that too!)

Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman, PhD, is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focusing on strengthening vulnerable children and families and working to improve the value of national investments in health and health care. Read her full bio