Anita Nowak, Photo: Allen McInnis No third party usage is permitted without prior consent. © Allen McInnis 2021

Exten­ding empa­thy is an oppor­tu­nity to feel good too

Dr. Anita Nowak teaches the power of empathy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. As a former professional fundraiser who now works with family foundations as a certified coach, she believes empathy is necessary for good philanthropy. This evening, she will speak about this at the University of Geneva.

Why do you say that empa­thy is parti­cu­larly important to philanthropy? 

Anita Nowak: The word phil­an­thropy means “love of mankind,” and we’re at a time in human history when we need to coll­ec­tively amplify love and empa­thy in the world. During my docto­ral rese­arch, I inter­viewed dozens of social entre­pre­neurs from across the globe to disco­ver what they had in common. I wanted to know why they spent their lives dedi­ca­ted to solving social and envi­ron­men­tal problems in order to deve­lop curri­cu­lum that would inspire the next gene­ra­tion of changemakers.

Did you find anything?

Yes, they all had two things in common. First, they grew up in fami­lies that regu­larly volun­tee­red, had parents who “gave back” to society, and model­led service beha­viour in their home. Second, when they came across a group of people suffe­ring or being margi­na­li­zed in some way, they couldn’t turn a blind eye. Instead, they felt compel­led to act.

A dozen years ago in my PhD disser­ta­tion, I called that empa­thic action. Today, I call it purpo­seful empa­thy. And that’s precis­ely what good phil­an­thropy is. When someone accu­mu­la­tes wealth through hard work, and good fortune, they might feel inspi­red to share their bles­sings with those less fort­u­nate. If they do it with empa­thy, that’s great. But not if they do it out of pity.

If they do it with empa­thy, that’s great. But not if they do it out of pity.

Anita Nowak, McGill Univer­sity in Montreal

What’s the difference?

Pity invol­ves power asym­me­try. When you pity someone, you look down on them. That’s why I think it’s unfort­u­nate when a phil­an­thro­pic gift is made out of pity. Empa­thy is quite diffe­rent. Based on my rese­arch, I define empa­thy as the innate trait that unites us in our common huma­nity. We all share emoti­ons like fear, shame, joy, and hope – and empa­thy allows us to relate to one another. But there’s an important caveat: We cannot discount indi­vi­dual lived expe­ri­en­ces! So, while we share feelings and expe­ri­en­ces in common, we can never fully under­stand what someone else is going through.

Most Euro­peans live with great privi­lege. Can we really imagine what it’s like to live in a refu­gee camp for 20 years, for example?

Humans are wired to empa­thize with people in our “in-group.” Meaning, people who look like us, vote like us, or support the same foot­ball team. So, while it does take more effort to empa­thize with someone living in a comple­tely diffe­rent context, I believe it’s incum­bent on upon us to flex our empa­thy muscles – indi­vi­du­ally and coll­ec­tively — espe­ci­ally in the face of climate change, mass migra­tion, and war, etc.

Are you suggest­ing that we can become more empa­thic with practice?

Yes. Thanks to neuro­pla­s­ti­city. By thin­king more empa­thic thoughts, and beha­ving in more empa­thic ways, we can streng­then our synap­tic connec­tions. And as they thic­ken, we can become more empa­thic as a natu­ral reflex. It’s quite amazing.

Can you elaborate?

When I lear­ned about the neuro­sci­ence of empa­thy, I star­ted doing expe­ri­ments. One day, I was stan­ding in line at a FedEx store. When it was my turn, the agent who gree­ted me was excee­din­gly rude. Instead of exacer­ba­ting the situa­tion, I deci­ded to try empa­thy. I asked her since­rely: “Are you okay?” When she reali­zed I wasn’t being sarca­stic, she burst into tears. She replied: “I’ve been working double shifts for two weeks. My son is at home with a fever and I think I’m getting sick, too. It’s 3pm and I haven’t had a lunch break. I’m just exhaus­ted.” Twenty seconds earlier, I disliked the woman. After she shared her story, we held hands, locked in an empa­thic embrace. That’s why I believe empa­thy is our superpower.

Is there such a thing as too much empathy?

Yes. Compas­sion fati­gue and empa­thy fati­gue are real — and often debi­li­ta­ting. People who work in health­care are dispro­por­tio­na­tely affec­ted. The same holds true for huma­ni­ta­ri­ans, psycho­lo­gists, social workers, and teachers because they’re all service provi­ders. And it can impact phil­an­thro­pists as well. That’s why we must all prac­tice self-empa­thy. It’s impos­si­ble to extend empa­thy on an empty emotio­nal battery.  Doom­scrol­ling hasn’t helped.

There is a risk that the pendulum swings too far, and we miss the human element.

Anita Nowak

What does that mean?

It’s a new word that became popu­lar during the early days of the pande­mic, when ever­yone was addic­ted to their cell phones, scrol­ling endlessly through the news. Unfort­u­na­tely, we spend much too much time on our elec­tro­nic devices for good mental health. And that’s certainly the case for youth. My latest cohorts of students were born after 2000. They grew up with cell phones and the reality of climate change. Their fear about the future is real. It’s called eco-anxiety. Some of them don’t want to have child­ren because they believe it would be immo­ral given the current context. That’s hard to hear.

How can the phil­an­thro­pic sector respond with empathy?

The sector has grown signi­fi­cantly over the past ten years. There are more and more billionaires on the planet, and more and more phil­an­thro­pic dollars being inves­ted. Family foun­da­ti­ons play an inte­res­t­ing role too, since they can also leverage their family busi­nesses for grea­ter social good. In the face of climate change and great social inequa­lity, with the rise of popu­lism and tota­li­ta­rian regimes, phil­an­thro­pists have a major role to play – espe­ci­ally if we don’t want to see demo­cra­cies implode and want to avoid mass suffe­ring on the planet.

Many programs at univer­si­ties and adult educa­tion cour­ses are desi­gned to help profes­sio­na­lize the non-profit sector, inclu­ding phil­an­thropy. Is this in conflict with empathy?

I support profes­sio­na­li­zing phil­an­thropy and the social sector, but there is a risk that the pendulum swings too far, and we miss the human element. I think the best approach for phil­an­thropy is to engage ours heads, hearts and hands.

Any final thoughts?

Exten­ding empa­thy offers us all an oppor­tu­nity to feel good. Feeling emotio­nal reso­nance and connec­tion lights up the same plea­sure and rewards centers in our brains, as does a deli­cious piece of choco­late cake. And it decrea­ses corti­sol and increa­ses sero­to­nin and dopa­mine. So remem­ber, empa­thy is good for us!

Event (sold out): Univer­sity of Geneva, Monday, Octo­ber 16th, lecture by Anita Nowak: “The Role of Empa­thy in Philanthropy.”

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