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Empathy and What It Teaches Us

written by Aren Cohen 12 December 2009

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

We all know that a guiding principle of positive psychology is that “Other people matter.” What is it that makes other people matter to us? Empathy.

Empathy is commonly defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Our ability to relate to another person will inherently be the context in which they have meaning to us. If we cannot understand another person, why should they matter to us? By having insight into how another person feels, we can participate in her experience and comprehend the emotions, good, bad or indifferent, that she feels. Empathy makes us better people because it takes us outside ourselves. It forces us to acknowledge people around us as human, replete with the same panoply of feelings that we ourselves possess. Empathy allows us to appreciate others because we partake in their emotional lives.

On November 13, 2009, I attended The Wonderplay Conference: Early Childhood Learning at the 92nd Street Y (www.92y.org) in New York City. The theme of the conference was Building Empathy and Resilience: The Role of the Early Educator. The conference was a full day affair with two keynote speakers in the morning and two breakout sessions in the afternoon. While all of the content was fascinating, the presentation I found most stimulating was Dr. Kyle Pruett’s “Empathy and the Teachable Moment.” Dr. Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Nursing at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.

Dr. Pruett’s definition of empathy is “mindful perception of another’s emotional experience.” He discussed how empathy is more powerful than sympathy (defined as emotional resonance) or self-awareness (which would be akin to projecting our own feelings on others or anthropomorphizing animals). Empathy, unlike sympathy or self-awareness, engenders a sense of reciprocal obligation in us. When we are sympathetic, we care, up to a point. When we are empathic, we feel what another feels and we are moved to act on his or her behalf. We jump up and down with her if she’s joyful; we enfold him in a bear hug if he is sad.

Where does empathy come from? How does it develop within us as children, so that we become empathic adults? Child psychologists Anna Freud and Jean Piaget believed that empathy was part of our moral development. Martin Hoffman, in his studies of empathy in children attributed it to intrinsic growth; morality that developed from a pro-social, perspective-taking stance. What is important about children learning empathy is that it signifies that they have learned that the world is not “all about me.”

Dr. Pruett walked his audience through the empathic trajectory, which described how children’s brains develop empathy from ages 0-8. At 9 months children learn that others have emotions. Between a year and 18 month, a child will reach out and loan her binky or blanket to an unhappy friend. As children get older, they develop sympathetic and helping behaviors, and then they learn to move beyond themselves, as their brains mature and their use of language grows. By the time children are 7 or 8, they have moved beyond the basic idea of “what is fair,” to start creating their own ideas of moral reasoning and social justice.

Dr. Pruett raised questions about how we teach empathy, or if it is programmed in us by nature. Additionally, he asked the audience if we believe there is a gender gap in the way the sexes exhibit empathy. While fascinating conversations came out of these queries, it seems that much more research is needed.

In positive psychology, we skirt around the issue of empathy. Compassion or kindness is one of the twenty-four strengths, but actual empathy, the act of mindful perception of another’s emotional experience, seems to slip through the cracks. We know that other people matter, but the WAY they matter to us is deeply important. Without empathy, people are, in a way, just placeholders. Empathy makes us respond to the feelings of other people.

It was meaningful to me that early educators are exploring how, or if, empathy is teachable. When I think about all the good positive interventions we know, I realize there are few that exercise our empathy.

In their book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Dr. Stephen Post and Jill Neimark discuss the many benefits of giving. They define giving broadly, not just in the material sense, but also other ways of giving one’s self, including celebration, loyalty, humor, and respect. What strikes me about this kind of giving is that it is only possible with empathy. Giving benefits us because it allows us to make others feel good. We understand that we have done this through our own empathy. It is, in fact, the golden rule we learn at age 7 or 8, “do unto others.” What is unexpected is that doing unto others is the positive intervention. Using our empathy to give provides us with psychological and physical rewards.

As we approach the holiday season, we should focus on our empathy and our giving. Times are hard these days, but we increase the happiness in the world most when we to reach out to others and are generous with them, not just with things, but with spirit and soul. Now is the time.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Social Intelligence chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.




Post, S. & Neimark, J. (2008). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. New York: Broadway.

Pruett, K. (2001). Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. New York: Broadway.

Pruett, K. (2009). Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently–Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Live via satellite or webcast from New York’s 92nd Street Y: Building Empathy & Resilience: The Role of the Early Childhood Educator — The live broadcast is now over, but you can purchase a DVD from this site.

A YouTube interview with Dr. Kyle Pruett

Two children courtesy of L. N. Batides
EFC2007: Mixed Pair Finals (Empathy with Joy) courtesy of brtsergio
Child with blanket courtesy of crimfant

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Barry Elias 13 December 2009 - 4:20 am

December 13, 2009

Dear Ms. Cohen:

Your piece on “empathy” was well done.

Most significantly, and seemingly paradoxical, empathy empowers not only the receptor, but the transmitter as well.

The receptor experiences understanding, appreciation, and validation emotionally, psychologically, socially, and cognitively.

The transmitter experiences the same as the receptor reflects the same, which reinforces valuation and efficacy of self.

Thank you kindly for the valuable information.

Barry Elias

John in Cincinnati 13 December 2009 - 11:28 am


Reading your article was a delightful way to begin my Sunday morning. Thanks! All of us in this field know experientially the getting of giving. I would love to see research on that specifically. I also like your described niche of “learning coach” working with “challenged” rather than “disordered” students. I’m working toward developing “comeback coaching” for previously successful individuals faced with an adult-onset challenge. You’ve given me new ideas.

Best regards,


Edwin Rutsch 13 December 2009 - 1:21 pm


I enjoyed your article.. I’m working on a documentary on empathy. Here’s the link to the project and other resources.


Judi Roberts 14 December 2009 - 1:21 pm

Thanks Aren for another wonderful and very interesting blog posting. I remember my father saying that you cannot judge another person until you have walked a mile in his shoes. I do believe that he spoke not only of sympathy but also to empathy. Making others matter helps to create a caring community in which we are valued for our whole selves and as Barry suggests, in making others matter, we also matter to ourselves building a sense of wellness and wholeness within.

Thanks also for reminding us that this is the time…now is the moment.


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