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While shared happiness is a very pleasant state, sharing someone's suffering, such as a loved one, can be very difficult.
Our brain activity in the regions associated with pain is partially mirrored. At worst, people feel "empathic distress," which leads to apathy, withdrawal, and feelings of helplessness. It can even be bad for your health.
The German word for empathy is "Einfühlung" and was coined in the late 1800s. It means "feeling into."
Empathy is about understanding other people's feelings. Some think empathy means the ability to read fellow human beings or simply feeling connected to people. Others see it as a moral stance about showing concern for others.
Psychologists point out that defining empathy as the act of stepping into someone's mind to experience their feeling can lead to some tricky moral dilemmas.
To be compassionate, you don't have to share somebody's feelings. It's the idea of extending kindness towards others.
In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can lead to exhaustion and apathy, and prevent you from helping the people who need you.
Worse, people's empathetic tendencies can be used to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.
We naturally have more empathy for people closer to us. Our empathy and affinity for others decline the further people are from us.
But our natural empathy for those closer and more similar to us can be used to provoke antipathy towards those who are not like us. Politicians and activists often play to the idea of "us and them," deploying empathy and identifiable victims to make a political case.
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