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The Outpost

The Empathy Impact
By Theresa Potratz
Published October 05, 2020
the empathy impact

Creativity is great — when it comes to you. Those flashes of inspiration are incredible. I’ve written on how to cultivate a mind ripe for exploration through continuous study. But how do we ensure our new knowledge is the most likely to generate actual fruit. After studying gratitude and empathy, I submit the concept that by cultivating this gratitude and empathy we prepare our brains and get ourselves into a mental framework to create something amazing. 

Think of it as our knowledge of our craft as seeds. For those to grow into breath-taking works of art we need to ensure they fall on fertile soil. We need to prepare ourselves, much like a farmer preps the soil, ensuring a bountiful harvest. 

Difference Between Gratitude and Empathy

Dicitonary.com defines gratitude as the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful. Empathy, in contrast, is the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. 

Gratitude then would be better defined as focusing on inward things we are thankful for. Empathy is experiencing the world the way another person does. So why would I say we need both to inspire creativity? 

Let’s dive deeper into this rabbit hole and explore how both of these attributes affect people’s bodies. 

Gratitude’s Effect on the Body

empathy and gratitude

The greatest reason gratitude is a key ingredient of creating a more creative mind is how it impacts the human body. Apparently by practicing gratitude and saying thank you, rewires your brain, making you happier. 

Of course, this works better when you mean it. A study in 2015 at the University of Miami, exploring the effects of gratitude. One-third of those in the study recorded the day’s irritations. Another third tracked the day’s events not attributing positive or negative emotions to them. The final third tracked things they were grateful for. 

Physical Health

Members of the University of Miami study in the cohort practicing gratitude reported fewer doctor visits and were more active than those recording negative experiences. They aren’t isolated. Other studies found grateful people enjoyed better sleep and had lower levels of anxiety and depression. Another study correlates this mindset with reductions in heart failure, fatigue, and inflammation

Grateful Brains 

Our bodies aren’t alone in experiencing the glory of gratitude. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles use MRIs to measure brain activity on subjects receiving gifts. The scans revealed the parts of our brains responding to gratitude are associated with the hypothalamus. This area regulates stress hormones, sleep, and emotional responses. Of course, we could argue we’d feel less stress when we receive gifts and bask in adoration, but is that true? 

What about the adage that “it’s better to give than to receive?” 

Domino Effect 

As a Ph.D. candidate, Joseph Chancellor set out to see if generosity was effective in generating a pay-it-forward concept (like the movie). Ultimately, he wanted to know how paying it forward affected others. To better understand, he used a workplace to test and separated participants into three groups: givers, receivers (who were oblivious to who the givers were), and a standard control group. 

Surprisingly, both givers and receivers benefited from giving. Receivers randomly began generating acts of kindness on their own. Both the moods of the givers and receivers elevated. Receivers also generated their own acts of kindness, perpetuating the cycle. Imagine for a second what it must have been like to work in this type of environment. 

The idea that kindness is contagious flies in the face of the cynic and inspires us to create positive changes that we want to see in the world

Empathy at Work  

There’s a reason to look at both gratitude and empathy together. Gratitude gets us the right frame of mind for us to practice empathy and through understanding the point of view of others we are able to launch ourselves into creative problem-solving. In fact, John F. Wakefield believes there is a strong link in empathy and problem finding

Problem finding is an interesting concept. It occurs before we solve a problem. We’ve all sensed issues and felt uncomfortable about something before we’re able to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong. Once we’re able to ascribe words to the problem we can then figure out ways to fix it. The link between empathy and problem finding then allows us to look through the eyes of other people and understand what they are experiencing. 

Empathy, then, allows us to harness our ability to uncover issues. If we can cultivate gratitude, we can increase the likelihood we’ll be able to have empathy for others. This elevates our creativity, particularly in our ability to identify issues. This surfaces a need to cultivate both gratitude and empathy to support our creative lives.  

A Lack of Empathy

Up to this point, I’ve been covering the importance of empathy and gratitude, but what happens when someone can’t? I don’t mean in the colloquial, “I just can’t even,” I am speaking to a distinct inability to understand the feelings of others – I.E. psychopaths.

I’m not saying if you don’t participate in paying things forward you’re the real-life equivalent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but I do think it’s important to take a moment to and look at what an inability to feel empathy looks like.  

Scientists studied people testing high in psychopathic tendencies. When they asked participants to imagine someone else’s brain, they uncovered the parts of the brain that become active when people feel empathy was dormant. Things get worse. When they imagined someone’s pain, psychopaths showed increases in their ventral striatum, a pleasure center. 

adorable-angry-animal-animal-portrait-208984
While cats are arguably the most psychopathic pet, they are awesome.

Well, that’s umm… not promising. 

Psychopathy Correlations

The same research cites 23% of prison inmates test as psychopaths. Now before we cast too much judgment about prison inmates, it’s important to consider that roughly the same percentage of CEOs are estimated to be psychopaths. While it’s uncomfortable to think many leaders get a rush from another’s pain, this mindset prevents these leaders from becoming paralyzed at tough decisions impacting people’s lives. To push the entire organization forward, they are able to zoom out and focus on the bigger picture. While I don’t see articles or studies to support this, I assume leaders might benefit from an ability to detach. 

After stating that, I need to call out the honest truth that I do not think all leaders need to have psychopathic tendencies. I believe the most skilled leaders have an understanding of their own blindspots and have advisors that point out gaps in judgment as opposed to having “yes men.” Overall, I believe I understand why we see such a strong amount of psychopaths rise to leadership and am attempting to rationalize how that came to be. 

Rehabilitation

So looking back at the scientific study of psychopathy and prison inmates, we can see not all psychopaths are bad, they were born that way and researchers believe this could lead to intervention programs. They believe they could, “Honing in on neural networks needed to make people more empathetic may be the key to targeting psychopathic behavior and lower violent crime.” 

So if researchers are looking for ways to help inmates cultivate empathy, doesn’t it stand to reason we could all benefit from doing what we can increase our personal ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place? 

Cultivating Gratitude

If we are looking to generate more empathy, we have to start by increasing the amount of gratitude we have. In creating this post, I uncovered a pdf created in Australia to help students focus on thankfulness and giving back. 

While some of the pdf isn’t applicable to most of us – namely trying to pair up with a random student to complete an assignment – it is important to recognize the steps the concepts listed to create mindfulness around gratitude. Some of these ideas include:

  • thinking of words to express thankful ideas
  • tracking thankful thoughts
  • writing notes expressing these feelings. 

These actions allow us to create space to be mindful of empathy and gratitude. As we practice gratitude we treat others as we want to be treated – following the Golden Rule. As we live this out more fully, we generate more empathy and begin to follow the Platinum Rule – causing us to treat others as they want to be treated. This important differentiation is impossible without having enough awareness and empathy to cause ourselves to understand other people’s feelings and desires. 

This Platinum Rule brings everything full circle. By having enough empathy to treat others as they would like to be treated, we end up proving the theory that empathy is linked to problem finding. To accomplish our goals we require great amounts of empathy. 

Final Thoughts 

positive work environment

Our brains are incredible problem-solving machines. We have the ability for endless creativity. For us, as individuals, to harness our capacity, we need to ensure our brains are in the right frame of mind to access both convergent and divergent thought patterns. By starting with cultivating gratitude, we develop a greater understanding of how others must feel, leading to our ability to empathize with them. The more we practice these activities the more neural pathways we create, allowing us to better execute on empathic strategies. These empathetic actions have the ability to shift the culture of workplaces. 

Reports show connections between empathy and the ability to identify problems. This environment is also conducive to solving them. After all, we see this type of work done on website design. By understanding how consumers will interact with the website, developers tackle how the User Interface (UI) impacts the User Experience (UX). This understanding, or empathy, grants them the ability to create a site that operates as visitors expect. This isn’t limited to website design. 

It exists in the workplace, where both the people generating acts of kindness and receivers benefit. People receiving these acts are likely to randomly start also displaying acts of kindness as well. What starts as a single person (or a few in the study on paying kindness forward), offices experience a culture shift toward kindness. This elevated mood lays the foundation for problem-solving. This mood allows people to experience elevated levels of divergent thought – where they are able to explore a myriad of possibilities to solve problems. After all, we see that it’s positive/affirming environments that foster ideation. 

Just one negative comment causes our brains to cease divergent thought, clamping our creative flow to a standstill. Negative environments reduce our capacity to function as creative beings. But if we were able to start by practicing mindful gratitude, we’d increase gratitude, which leads to our ability to empathize with others – not only granting us a greater capacity for creative thought but empowering those around us as well. 

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