The Grinch’s Heart Grew 3 Sizes—So Can Yours
5 practical ways to grow your “empathy muscle.”
Posted December 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- More than ever, it’s necessary to step outside of our echo chambers to truly hear about the challenges, struggles, and lives of other people.
- Some of the most gratifying life changes happen when we allow ourselves to be taught something new that changes our mindset.
- Being open to seeing the world through the eyes of another person or group of people can be enlightening and life changing.
It seems these days we’re able to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Most of us spend most of our time with folks who think like us, look like us, have educations like ours, and live lives that are similar to how we live. It’s understandable, then, that we are seeing a kind of societal “empathy deficit.”
New York Times writer Claire Cain Miller writes that this global empathy deficit1 is at the root of many of our biggest problems: “Our social circles have become so homogenized,” she states. “And it’s natural that like-minded humans naturally hold biases.” That’s why it has become so important to recognize that we’ve got them and to develop an awareness of our own blind spots. Researchers in the field of social sciences share that empathy is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the better we become at being compassionate people.
5 Ways to Grow Your Empathy Muscle
1. Be curious. Research shows2 that experiences influence our empathy, and increasing our breadth of experiences leads to increased curiosity. For me, this has included travel to experience different cultures, but I’ve also gained a lot of understanding from talking to people with vastly different backgrounds and life experiences. It can be easy to make assumptions about people that aren’t always accurate, and it’s fascinating to learn about people who are different than I am. It broadens my perspective and enlightens my worldview.
Cain Miller cites neuroscientific research asserting that “empathy happens when two parts of the brain work together—the emotional center perceives the feelings of others and the cognitive center tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them.” Curiosity is the catalyst and the bridge that brings these two centers together.
2. Close your mouth and listen (and resist the urge to judge or compare). Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and has studied empathy and its complexities for the past 15 years. A few years ago, Zaki began noticing that people seemed increasingly ready to surrender empathy in favor of anger, judgment, and tribal loyalty.3 His new book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World is a scientific exploration of how we can short-circuit that impulse and instead embrace empathy as a skill to be honed.
Zaki states that listening in order to understand the other person's experiences rather than focusing on sharing your own is at the heart of empathy. Being caught up in thinking about ourselves or comparing how our situation measures up to others' situations is a sure way to shut down empathy. More than ever, it’s necessary to step outside of our echo chambers to truly hear about the challenges, struggles, and lives of other people.
3. Practice compassion meditation. “Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states,” say researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A 2008 study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that “positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”4
4. Focus on similarities and “alikeness,” not differences. We are naturally drawn to people who mirror our experiences, and even though our unique circumstances may differ from one another, it’s important to cultivate the threads that join us. Actively trying to find similarities helps others feel validated, and it validates our own humanity, too. In an increasingly isolated world, it’s important to connect with each other in ways that are deeply human and real.
5. Be open to changing your beliefs and attitudes. Author John Maxwell coined the saying: “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” Some of the most gratifying life changes happen when we allow ourselves to be taught something new that changes our mindset and/or worldview.
Being open to seeing the world through the eyes of another person or group of people can be enlightening and life-changing. While curiosity can ignite this dynamic, empathy is an important element that gives it staying power. The ability to adapt and change our belief systems based on evolving dynamics in the world we inhabit is key to living harmoniously with one another.
Empathy Essential Reads
It’s important to realize that we won’t always understand the experiences of other people. But we can open our minds and our hearts to make space for growth. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas:
What happened in Whoville they say—that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then—the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”5
[1 ] Cain-Miller, Claire. How to Be More Empathetic. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-be-more-empathetic
 Lemmer, G. Wagner, U. Can we really reduce ethnic prejudice outside the lab? A meta-analysis of direct and indirect contact interventions. European Journal of Social Psychology. February 2015 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.2079
 Zaki, Jamil. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World 9780451499240: Amazon.com: Books
 Study shows compassion meditation changes the brain. University of Wisconsin, Madison (2008). Study shows compassion meditation changes the | EurekAlert!
 Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Random House. New York. 1957.