Got empathy?

On October 17, 2010, the Boston Globe published an article by Keith O'Brien on the topic of empathy in young people. New research from the University of Michigan indicates that young Americans are becoming less empathetic. The article begins:

"Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers — “Quiz tomorrow...gotta study!” — about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. And there are signs that Generation Wi-Fi is also interested in connecting with people, like, face-to-face, in person. The percentage of high school seniors who volunteer has been rising for two decades.

But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years."

Empathy is notoriously hard to measure and to teach. But even in these relatively early stages of understanding empathy and grasping whether it is legitimately on the decline, it is important to consider what type of response or movement is needed to counter the alleged decline in this generation's ability to feel the plight of others. It is particularly interesting to consider these results as volunteerism appears to be on the rise. Can tens of thousands of college graduates dedicate themselves to years of service in Teach for America, City Year, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, etc without feeling profound empathy for their fellow human beings? Is today's volunteerism encouraging a narcissistic type of giving back? Can empathy coexist with the drive to pad a resume?

At the foundation of Still Harbor’s mission is the desire to help individuals and organizations examine these sorts of questions. The comprehensive training program we facilitate for Global Health Corps fellows throughout their year of service has at its core the belief that empathy is necessary for finding personal meaning in any kind of work and for developing leadership skills that can be applied throughout one’s career. Through guided reflection, discernment, and mentorship, empathy can indeed be taught and, perhaps more importantly, it can be preserved in the face of obstacles, disappointments, and stress. Still Harbor's range of programs for individuals and organizations (including educational institutions and classrooms) strive to make sure that empathy is able to thrive alongside the complex demands and pervasive cynicism of the 21st century.

Read the full Boston Globe article here.

Find out more from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research here.

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