Want to strengthen your empathy skills? Try reading—not necessarily the magazines you pick up in checkout lines, but books that explore people’s inner lives.
In 2013, researchers at the New School published a paper in Science suggesting that literary fiction boosted people’s capacity to imagine another person’s experience. Unlike other genres, it goes deeper into a character’s mind and provides the reader with an empathy lift.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. It makes sense, then, that immersing ourselves in the lives of others increases our ability to be empathetic.
We tend to gravitate—consciously or unconsciously—toward people, messages, and environments that reflect our viewpoints. Life just feels more comfortable when our opinions are reinforced. And besides, we’re all too busy to make room for different perspectives. We can learn how other people live by binge-watching a few episodes of our favorite reality television show, right?
Well, not necessarily.
All of us like to believe we’re empathetic, but sometimes we’re easily triggered. Try as we might to be patient and understanding, worlds keep colliding—someone starts talking too loudly on their cell phone, or cuts in front of us on the highway. Many of us like to believe, “Oh yeah, empathy. That. I’ve got that in spades.” We consider ourselves compassionate, but all it takes is one perceived slight and suddenly it’s: Game over.
Here’s something we don’t like to hear: Empathy takes work. It doesn’t just happen. Like many good habits, it’s built by practice and attention. Our overriding pattern may be to stick to what’s familiar, but to break from routine requires effort. Reading about other people’s lives is one practice that can help break that pattern. It illuminates the privilege of some and the suffering of others and leaves us changed because what is seen cannot be unseen (or in this case, what is read cannot be unread).
As a teen-ager growing up in a small rural Wisconsin town, I spent hours at the local library. One afternoon as I wandered along the bookshelves, I arbitrarily pulled The World According to Garp by John Irving off the shelf. As I paged through it, I was introduced to Roberta Muldoon—a transgender person who had been a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League. I was intrigued and checked out the book. She wasn’t the central character, but a protective presence in the novel. For a teen-ager growing up in a small rural town, she was eye-opening. Roberta wasn’t a real person, but I’m glad I met her and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read the book.
Although it isn’t fiction, memoir also allows us to exercise our empathy muscle. People sometimes reduce the genre to “navel-gazing” but what better way to inhabit another world? In her book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests that with excellent writing, “The reader gets zipped into your skin.” It’s the description of sensory experience—smell, sight, taste, touch, sound—that transports us from our world into another. And that’s about as close as we can get to living another person’s life.
Not only is it important to have empathy for others, we need to have compassion for ourselves. Reading about someone who has gone through a similar experience gives us a richer understanding of our own lives. Have you ever read something that makes you think: I thought I was the only one? Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is about her experience following her husband’s death. After my father died, her book gave me another perspective on the grieving process. Her experience was different than mine; however, it made me feel less alone.
Empathy requires work, but the personal and professional rewards are plentiful. It asks us to challenge ourselves and step out of our comfort zone. It decreases the space between us and reminds us of our similarities. Reading serves as an empathy exercise because noticing other people’s lives helps us live in a more compassionate way.
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