Empathy seems to be in short supply, lately. And it’s no surprise after all we’ve dealt with in the past two years: the coronavirus pandemic, economic insecurity, misinformation and racial injustice, to name just a few of the recent challenges we’ve all faced. Those stressors have led to soaring anxiety, depression and other psychological problems. It’s no wonder that many of us feel that no one cares about us anymore.
It’s natural that when we’re hurting or troubled that we’d like to feel that other people understand and are concerned about what we’re going through. But opportunities to give and receive empathy in the past several months have seemed almost nonexistent: preoccupation with struggles of their own makes other people seem indifferent. And decreased social interaction and online-only get-togethers aren’t the panaceas we’re craving.
Empathy is clearly on people’s minds more than in times past. Google searches for the word empathy reached an all-time high in September 2020.
Now, the world is slowing opening up, which means that we’ll all be able to travel again soon. Why is that important? Because travel is one sure way to make us more empathetic.
How the word “empathy” is defined
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.”
Being empathetic, then, is about openness; creating an opening in oneself to receive the feelings of another. Empathy requires suspending your judgment of others and leaving your assumptions, fears and stereotypes at the door.
According to researchers, empathy is a trait that can’t be taught. But it can be facilitated. And travel, it turns out, is one of the best ways to do it.
How travel encourages empathy
The way I see it, travel encourages empathy to take root in the following ways:
1. Travel takes you out of your everyday comfort zone and allows new experiences to stream in.
True understanding comes only through experience. Imagination is a powerful tool, but experience is essential. And travel is about having new experiences.
Travel forces us to escape the insulation of our comfort zones and to face new people and new situations in the real world, strengthening our ability to empathize with a broader range of people. When you agree to open yourself up to new experiences by making the decision to travel, you actively pursue understanding of the cultures and people in a new place.
While traveling, a heightened sense of observation and sensory registering allows new experiences and impressions to flow into your consciousness more freely.
2. Travel helps you see other points of view and feel them on a visceral level.
Being able to slip into another person’s shoes becomes a lot easier once you start traveling. When you start to interact with people who do things quite differently than you do, you’ve got two choices: assume that these people are wrong and that your way is right, or try and imagine their points of view and develop some empathy as to why they do what they do.
When you travel and experience other cultures, the fact that different doesn’t mean wrong becomes much clearer. Typically, when you travel, you’re on a vacation with the intent to enjoy yourself. Under that circumstance, it seems easier to have appreciation for different viewpoints, rather than the typical hostile arguments that might develop back home over trivial differences of opinion.
Empathy is tied to travel in another way: learning a new language and becoming bilingual—particularly early in life—has been shown to increase our ability to empathize by making it normal for our brain to switch between languages and, therefore, perspectives.
As author David Mura writes in his 2018 book A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, “We are not all-knowing creatures. If we live in a village…we think our truth is the only truth; we think the way we see ourselves is the only way to see ourselves. But if a stranger walks into our village, or if we…walk into a village of strangers, we are suddenly aware that there are other ways of looking at the world; there are other ways of looking at ourselves, at who we are, at our place in the world, at the ways we identify ourselves.”
3. Travel makes you—and others—more authentic.
When you listen to others and then reflect back to them your best understanding of what they said, you build an emotional bond with them. You know yourself that when you feel that someone is really listening to you—attempting to understand not only what you are saying, but also the feelings behind the words you are using to convey them—you can’t help but feel kindly toward them. This attachment reinforces trust.
While traveling, this yields two great benefits. It invites people to be fully genuine, open and real with you, rather than to play roles, thereby encouraging greater individual authenticity. When others feel comfortable sharing themselves, we’re motivated to share even more in return. As a consequence, more authentic experiences—including some that will remain with you throughout your life—emerge and empathy grows.
4. Travel helps you recognize that you’re in a good situation, building empathy toward others.
Here’s a fact: if you’re lucky enough to be traveling—even if you’re on a small budget—you are one of the most privileged people in the world. On your travels, you’re likely to encounter people who will never, ever have the chance to hop on a plane and travel somewhere, and others who will never even understand that this is possible.
Remembering that is a key component of empathy.
5. Travel facilitates altruism and philanthropy.
Travel encourages altruism, which is a sister to empathy.
Many travelers today hope that their journeys will in some way benefit the people and lands they visit. But how can you expect to help others if you don’t first seek to understand who they are and what it is that they truly need? If you expect to make some lasting impact, you must first tune into the needs of individuals and communities and ditch your assumption that you know what is best.
Many international volunteer programs fail because outsiders come in, usually from countries with more privilege, assuming that they know what the local community needs, instead of listening to the people who live there and taking the time to understand without judgment the local context and perspective.
By actively listening to the beneficiaries or stakeholders in your work, however—in other words, by employing empathy—you can better deliver what the community needs and wants. You’ll also be showing the local people respect by treating them as the experts regarding their own circumstances.
How travel is a “leaving,” in more than one sense
Travel writer Anthony Bourdain once said, “The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart and on your body. You take something with you and, hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
That “leaving” of something good may be a small connection with another human being. A moment of empathy.
After the year we had in 2020, it’s just what we need.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,