The Importance of Empathy for Happiness

Hugh Hewitt, who teaches constitutional law, frames his book The Happiest Life around gifts and givers. For him, generosity is the precondition for happiness.

He first works his way through “The Seven Gifts”: Encouragement, Energy, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Good Humor, Graciousness, and Gratitude.

Of these seven gifts, he says:

Everyone is eligible to be a giver of these gifts. Everyone. You don’t need wealth. You don’t have to be twenty-one. You don’t even have to be literate.

And if you’re not giving these away, you are being a miser.

Then he follows with the seven kinds of givers we can be:

The Spouse, The Parent, Family Members, Friends,
The Coworker, Teachers, and The Church.

And to be a giver, you not only need to have generosity, but also courage. He starts the introduction of the book with a quote from the ancient Greek General, Thucydides:

The secret of happiness is freedom,
and the secret of freedom is courage.

Hewitt then writes:

You have to have courage to give away what you hold dearest, again and again and again. Every day. Remarkably, self-sacrifice and generosity produce the greatest, most enduring happiness.

Hewitt’s book is warm and wise, and full of illustrative stories to provide a sharp and insightful definition of the gifts.

For example, to bring home what empathy actually is (as opposed to sympathy), he shares a conversation he had with a rabbi.

Sympathy is sharing suffering at a distance.
Empathy is sharing suffering up close.

The rabbi said simply, “Show up and shut up.”

You don’t have to tell the suffering person that you know what they’re going through. You don’t know.

You don’t have to tell them it will be all right. You don’t have to share your own experience with suffering.

As Hewitt says, “The gift of quiet, advice-free companionship in the midst of suffering is a gift of the highest order.”

He makes the point that empathy is a costly gift because it means “reliving past sorrows and entering into new ones.”

From Sex and Romance: What You Should’ve Learned as a Teen

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