In 2017, there’s one resolution we can all try to keep: empathy.
A magical thing will happen at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1.
It happens every year, but seeing that new calendar with 365 days yet to be filled is always inspiring and exciting.
Many of us will resolve to spend the next 12 months getting fit, taking more time outside, budgeting better, or traveling more. For the first few months, we'll probably keep it up, too. But over time, life will creep in, and resolutions will break down. The reality: Only about 8% of people actually manage to achieve their New Year's resolutions.
But in 2017, there's one resolution we all have the power to make — and keep.
We can resolve to be more empathetic — to try to understand the feelings and experiences of others as if they were our own. It is one of the most important skills we can learn.
Over the past year in particular, it has become clear that Americans disagree about a lot of issues. While it can be easy to assume we are irreparably divided, that's only true if we believe it.
Humans are biologically and emotionally hardwired to care about others. In the last 20 years, scientists have observed portions of the human brain that light up with neural activity when we see people experiencing pain or emotions that we have experienced before. Scientists have also discovered that there's an entire part of the brain — the anterior insular cortex — that's wired to reward decision-making that helps cultivate positive emotional experiences.
But how do we actively incorporate this caring for others into our lives? Perhaps the easiest way is through another metaphor. Think of empathy as a muscle. If we don't use it, it gets weaker. If we exercise it regularly, it becomes more powerful.
Here are a few ways we can all make empathy one of our resolutions in 2017.
1. Actively seek out people who look at the world differently than you do.
If social media tells us anything, there are a lot of different opinions about how the world should be run. But instead of reflexively hitting the block or mute button, consider engaging people with compassion and understanding. Ask questions and approach situations with calmness and an open heart. It may not change your mind (or theirs), but you might start to understand and appreciate why they feel the way they do.
2. Experience the world of a disadvantaged social group.
Research shows that seeing the world through the eyes of marginalized or stigmatized social groups makes us more empathetic. That in turn makes us more likely to want to help others. Why not volunteer at a homeless shelter or a center for battered women or LGBTQ youth? You'll learn about their lives, and maybe a little more about yourself, too.
3. Learn more about religious groups of which you are not a member.
According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 76% of Americans consider themselves religious. Even if you aren't religious yourself, making an effort to understand how believers of a specific faith see the world can be eye-opening and enlightening.
4. Confront your own biases and examine why you have them.
Peer-reviewed academic studies have showed that being empathetic can reduce racism and prejudice. In the spirit of self-improvement, take some time to think about any specific biases or preconceptions you have about groups or social issues. Write them down and consider them seriously. Are they new or something learned from childhood? How can you change them and move on? Think about concrete steps you can take, from seeing a counsellor or a therapist to simply reading more. Be kind to yourself, but fair.
5. Expand your perspectives and challenge your beliefs.
Comfort zones have their name for a good reason. They're cozy, warm, and safe. But they're also limiting. If we're serious about repairing social rifts in our society, we need to be open to having hard conversations around contentious issues. Things may get awkward and uncomfortable, but it's necessary.
Ultimately, empathy is like the real-life version of those annoying internet ads from the early 2010s — it is the "one weird cure" for so many of the social problems we find ourselves facing today.
Empathy has the capacity to be transformative — potentially on a world scale. All it takes is our resolve and commitment. May we all find that in ourselves in 2017!