Joy sometimes seems like it’s in short supply. I admit… I often let the pessimist who lives in the back left part of my brain come out and have a few minutes to mess with the rest of my head. He reminds me that the world is coming to and end and everything is just horrible. He rants and raves and colors my outlook. When I let that little jerk out of his cage he steals my joy and probably even the joy of anyone else who is around at the time.
Pessimism is easy. It requires no thought and gets a lot of attention. It’s amazing how many people will stop and listen to a tale of woe. We often feel sorry for the sad story-teller. We honestly feel like that woeful soul is probably more miserable than anyone in the world and they deserve our sympathy. Which is kind of funny, because sympathy isn’t usually very helpful. Sympathy is kind of like saying, “Man, that sucks! Glad I’m not you!” Pessimism is often attention seeking and it will take sympathy as it’s payment, regardless of what that currency is actually worth.
Optimism is harder. It requires one to look objectively at the world and to say, “Yeah, it’s a dark and lonely place, but I’m going to take the best I can find and run with it”. Optimism is difficult but it seems to be fueled by empathy. I didn’t realize this until I identified a few really optimistic people who live and work in my community. By watching them I have discovered that empathy (both giving and receiving) makes a difference in their lives and helps drive their optimism.
For a long time I didn’t really get the difference between sympathy and empathy. They both seemed really touchy-feely and to be avoided entirely. I now think that, for the most part, sympathy could be avoided. However, I kind of dig empathy. Empathy is like saying, “Man, that sucks! I know how that feels! I’m here if you need help.” It’s a connection.
Sympathy leaves us feeling lonely and kind of like something is wrong with us. Empathy leaves us feeling supported by a knowing and caring friend. Sympathy promotes isolation in that you are kind of on your own to figure your stuff out. Empathy promotes community in that you have others who understand you and who stand with you.
I think optimism is fueled by empathy. Having and empathic person in your corner promotes a sense of community and security that helps strengthen an overall sense of well-being. That sense of well being leads to an attitude of optimism.
Optimism is a catalyst of joy.
Joy may be in short supply, but it doesn’t have to be. I think empathy is a two-way street. If I practice empathy toward others… I can’t help but think it will come back to me. That has been true in all of my experience. I also think that the more we practice empathy toward each other, the stronger our relationships will be. As our relationships grow stronger we will experience a greater sense of community, support and well-being. As we feel more connected we will likely be more optimistic about things in general and if I’m right and optimism is a catalyst for joy… well… there you go.
It seems simple, right? Maybe it is, but it takes a decision to practice empathy. And that is not as easy as it sounds. To better practice empathy I think we can do the following five things:
Be present – Put the cell phone away. Make eye contact.
Listen actively – Give your full attention and be able to summarize in your head what the other person is saying.
Judge ye not – Empathy means putting yourself in the other persons shoes. If you do this, it’s a lot harder to judge them.
Don’t try to “fix” others – If someone is telling you their story they don’t usually want advice unless they ask for it.
Keep it quiet – Empathy is only as good as the trusting relationship in which it occurs. If someone is telling their story, it is not yours to tell to someone else.
I think there’s a lot of joy in the world, sometimes it just needs to be found out. Empathy in relationships can help surface real joy.