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The Danger of Confusing Empathy or Sympathy with Compassion

The Danger of Confusing Empathy or Sympathy with Compassion

We’re hearing more about the positive traits of empathy and compassion. Emotional intelligence is becoming more important than other intelligences (like IQ) at school at work and in life.  In past generations these two words might both have fallen into the category of sympathy but empathy, sympathy, and compassion are not words that can be used interchangeably and one of these three is more powerful than the other two.
Empathy refers to feeling what another person is feeling. Sympathy means you understand what the other person is feeling even without feeling it yourself. Compassion means your feelings have prompted you to take action to relieve the suffering of another person.
Scientists have shown that mirror neurons, a part of the brain whose specific job is to have us mirror what’s happening with someone else, play a big role in both empathy and compassion. When you see someone smile these neurons prompt you to smile back. When you witness someone in pain it can cause you the same type of pain too. Having empathy is your ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. Sympathy happens when you may not on a visceral level experience the sadness or pain that someone else is feeling but on the cognitive level you understand the feelings of another. I’m not sad when my friend’s old dog passes away but I can understand that my friend feels sadness.  Both empathy and sympathy are more about the person experiencing them than they are about the person who sparked the empathy or sympathy.
Compassion on the other hand comes from a Latin word that means “to suffer with”. When you are compassionate you are able to be aware of another’s suffering you have sympathetic concern to the level that you have been emotionally moved by their suffering then you wish to relieve that suffering and you act somehow in a way that is helpful.
Mathieu Richard, a  french Buddhist monk says “compassion is unconditional love applied to the suffering of others”. His belief is that compassion has a powerful ability to heal; both to the one giving and to the receiver.
An important distinction between empathy and compassion is the effect on your personal well-being. Empathy and sympathy are both self-oriented. They say “I’m hurt too” and have you join the suffering or acknowledge that you see the suffering. Interestingly, research is showing that narcissists may have deficit in their mirror neuron receptors. Not only are they unable to mirror the emotional experience of another but they exhibit frustration when someone doesn’t mirror their emotional state. This is been referred to as a narcissistic rage. Of course very few people are diagnosably narcissistic but it seems empathy and sympathy are more about the individual wanting to be seen as a kind and understanding person than they are about  actually being kind and understanding. Empathy and sympathy alone are not enough. Empathy pulls you down where compassion lifts you.
Experiencing empathetic burnout or empathy fatigue is common among people who spend their lives caring for others such as nurses or first responders.  In the United States, a study has shown that 60% of the medical profession suffers or has suffered from burnout, and that a third has been affected to the point of having to suspend their activities temporarily.By the prolonged experience of feeling what others feel they actually burn out and become more anxious, depressed and stressed out.  Compassion on the other hand doesn’t burn you out it, lifts you up.
Research shows that compassion and empathy take place in different parts of the brain and that by turning your empathy into compassion you can fight empathetic distress. The key difference lies in what you do after feeling the feelings evoked by mirror neurons. If you act, you lift yourself and others. If you get stuck in the emotion without positive action, you pull yourself down. The Greater Good Science Center has a quiz to measure how empathetic you are. I suggest you take it to see how much you are recognizing the emotions of others. The second and more important part is turning that empathy into compassion through useful action. See the bottom of the article for tips on how to do this.
Set up a free account to save your quiz scores and track your progress over time.

Change Your Empathy and Sympathy into Compassion

1. Notice the feelings

2. Ask yourself how you can help. This doesn’t mean changing everything. What small step could you take to make the situation better?

3. Take action while staying in touch with your emotional barometer. If you are too emotionally overwhelmed start with a loving kindness meditation. This type of meditation is proven to increase well-being while decreasing empathetic fatigue.


If you’ve moved from empathy to compassion, I’d love to hear how you did it and what the results were. By sharing your story you inspire others to make positive change.

Don’t Mess With Happiness- What Happens When the World’s Top Positive Education Experts Meet in Texas?

Don’t Mess With Happiness- What Happens When the World’s Top Positive Education Experts Meet in Texas?

Imagine what can happen when you bring together 1200 stakeholders in the positive education field including academics, educators, students, parents, lawyers, policy-makers, and psychologists all with the common purpose of making a quantum leap in the ways positive education impacts academics and well-being globally.

The World Positive Education Accelerator is an IPEN event that just might change the world! With so many mike-drops it was difficult to choose but here are my top 10 aha moments from this four day appreciative inquiry summit.

1. “We are expecting our children to change the world and we aren’t giving them the skills to do it.” Champlain University President Don Laackman discussed how a radically pragmatic approach is needed in rethinking  how we educate.  To make our world a place, where children and learners of all ages can thrive, he suggested that connecting professional success with life’s purpose was one of the keys.

2. “We need to change our deficit oriented way of looking at the mental health of students.” In her keynote Lea Waters suggested  parents and educators need help to see and build strengths in children. When this happens it protects children against depression and anxiety, it increases self-confidence and life satisfaction, it buffers stress and anxiety, and it enhances self-efficacy. She included a reminder that it is our responsibility to educate not just children but also their parents about the strength-based approach.

3. “!t’s happiness stupid!” was Sir Anthony Seldon‘s  reminder to us to distinguish happiness from pleasure. Selden discussed the fourth education revolution pointing out that under the factory model of school we are not interested in who children are. that we are stronger together when we embrace the unknown, when we say goodbye to our binary ways of thinking, and when we get out of our own ways,

4. “Well-being is skill-based and learnable” according to Alejandro Adler. Investing in teacher well-being creates classrooms with a system of well-being which translates to advanced academic well-being, more pro-social behavior, and better health. His reminder that this begins with the educator was a key point.

5. “Optimism is the belief that our actions matteraccording to Amy Blankson who spoke on the intersection of education and technology. Blankson implored us to become balanced technology users learning to love technology and live with it not to escape from it. Recognizing that the average smartphone user checks 150 times a day is the first step, the is second putting the phone away. She shared that the mere presence of a phone is a happiness zapper. The power of a potential dopamine hit keeps us addicted and distracted while our brain is partially focused on the task at hand and partially waiting for additional content that is released every time we see notifications on our phone. This reward system is highly addictive we need to delete the temptations minimize notifications .
She reminded us with a great visual but our concerns are not new they are just different her for rules embrace a growth mindset about technology minimize distracting technology teach self-awareness set healthy boundaries to gather invisible boundaries until kids can self regulate

6. ” I believe wealth is not meant to create more wealth. Wealth is meant to create well-being.” Martin Seligman asked us to think about what are we going to do with human prosperity? Together Seligman and David Cooperrider envisioned new opportunities and possibilities for accelerating positive education.

7. “The best person in the class to up the connection of curiosity is the student” according to Angela Duckworth who has launched a character lab at UPenn designed to help use psychological sciences to help people thrive. She uses the heart, mind, will. method of seeing strengths.

  • heart to give to and receive from others
  • mind to think imagining create
  • will to achieve your goals through optimism growth mindset and grit

Her lab hopes to answer the question is character born or earned? Using the science of goal-setting to help increase your results, Duckworth suggests her WOOP model in creating a path to a goal:

  1. wish for something
  2. identify and imagine outcomes
  3. identify and imagine obstacles
  4. form a plan

8. “Progress not perfection”  says David Cooperrider who compared planning to a jazz improvisation.  Cooperrider said the world of leadership design is about legacy; it’s not just crazy creative it’s also detailed execution.  To avoid constraints or see opportunities and to get more creative using the core question “how might we…?” to begin a conversation designed to creatively solve the problems of the world. He also sees a need to remove the barriers that keep students from moving forward and staying curious and joyful.

9. “The heliotropic principle reminds us that we move towards things that give us life” we need to activate the motivation of our children said Jacklyn Wong. Speaking from her personal experience of using positive education to transform Singapore as a city. “It’s the essence not the architecture that’s the difference between a house and a home. ” Wong is one of the keys to changing the way an organization uses positive psychology to give leaders, teams and individuals the tools-the house, but they need to make it a home themselves.

10. “To prepare young people for a changing world, we need to support them in their self-discovery and awareness and increase their empathy.” President of Universidad Tecmilenio, Hector Escamilla spoke passionately about 29 campuses across Mexico who redesigned their process to start from purpose. When education is connected to what matters to a student they go farther faster.

Can Binge-Watching Make You Happier?

Can Binge-Watching Make You Happier?

According to Psychology Today, we are wired to binge-watch television. Humans are social beings and we connect emotionally with the stories and the plights of others on the screen. There’s even a new field called neurocinematics which is the study of how television and film interact with the brain. Neurocinematics research is finding that people binge to take a break from their regular lives by zoning out and being engrossed in a world that isn’t their own and that watching helps to a avoid fatigue in hectic, digitally-driven lives.

Ryan Niemiec is the founder of VIA Character Strengths, a positive psychology framework using the work first described by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson that identifies 24 universal strengths or virtues that impact well-being. Niemiec published a book positive psychology at the movies where he provides a deeply science-backed explanation of how the language of films allow us to experience the strengths and virtues that are universal across the population so we can have a meaningful experience while thinking about the virtues that we value most. Ultimately this can lift us or put us in an upward spiral towards more positive emotion. He calls this “cinematic elevation- the experience of positive emotion when watching a character displaying a character strength coupled with an intention to act for the good”.

In your life as a movie-goer or Netflix binger, this means there are actual physical and emotional benefits to screen time. In order to help you get the most out of your couch potato time, I encourage you to take the VIA survey and start watching through the lens of your strengths. My long-time favourite movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, aligns well with some of my top strengths including ZEST, CURIOSITY & CREATIVITY.  Which movies or movie characters do you love and how do they relate to your strengths? Here’s a list of the strengths, grouped by category, along with some of the top movie suggestions for each one. 

Category- Wisdom and Knowlege

The category wisdom and knowledge includes the strengths of perspective, love of learning, open-mindedness, curiosity, and creativity. Many consider this virtue category to be the core, the one that makes other virtues and strengths possible. Films that engender the wisdom and knowledge virtues often have the lead character directly or indirectly sharing insight and lifting others to higher levels of wisdom and knowledge, Archetypical characters that would fall into this category are Yoda, Gandolf, and Dumbledore.

Frida (2002)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

Maniac (2001)

Awakenings (1990)

Meet the Robinsons (2007) G

Big Hero 6 (2014) G


Amelie (2001)

The Secret Garden (1993)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) G

10 Items or Less (2006)

Sideways (2004)

Jurassic Park (1994)

The Machinist (2004)

Mongolian Ping Pong (2005)

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Up (2009)


My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Samsara (2011)

Lucy (2014)

Life as a House (2001)

Inception (2010)


The Sixth Sense (1999)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Big Fish (2003)

Gone Girl (2014)

Inside Out (2015)

Love of Learning

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Billy Elliott (2000)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

The Karate Kid (1984)

Finding Forrester (2001)


Category- Courage

The category of courage includes virtues that are emotional strengths. This includes bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality. There have been attempts by psychologists to develop scales to measure courage and others believe courage to be a way to define meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Scientifically very little is known about genetics and neuroscience of courage. There is also a distinction, sometimes made, between personal courage and general courage. General courage involves actions that impact everyone and personal courage is individualized.

Apollo 13 (1995)

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

Moana (2016) G

The Kite Runner (2007)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Rudy (1993)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

WALL-E (2008) G


The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Finding Nemo (2003) G

Babe (1995) G

Homeward Bound (1993)

Fame (1980)

127 Hours (2010)


Forrest Gump (1994)

Shark Tale (2004) G

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) G

Pinnochio (1940)

Shattered Glass (2003)

Memento (2000)

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Mary Poppins (1964) G

Peter Pan (2003) G

Legally Blonde (2001)

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Big Fish (2003)

Category- Humanity

Virtues that fall under humanity includes love, kindness, and social intelligence. The humanity strengths are all involved in relationship building and reaching out to befriend others. Niemiec noted a trend in today’s world toward movies that emphasize the character strengths and virtues under the heading of humanity.

Ghost (1990)

The Notebook (2004)

On Golden Pond (1981)

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The Princess Bride (1987)

Trainwreck (2015)

Friends With Benefits (2011)


As Good as it Gets (1997)

Schindler’s List (1993)

The Blind Side (2009)

Wonder (2012)

Victoria and Abdul (2017)


Category- Justice

The next category is the virtue of justice which contains citizenship, leadership, and fairness. This domain is the about interaction between an individual and the society around them. Of the six domains of virtues, justice and humanity, according to Peterson and Seligman, are the most universal. In cinema Justice films are often produced by indie film companies and seen at international film festivals- they aren’t the big box office winners and yet there are some fabulous gems in this category.


The Bad News Bears (1976)

Cool Runnings (1993)

A League of Their Own (1992)

Radio (2003)

Remember the Titans (2003)

Coach Carter (2005)

Pitch Perfect (2012)


Dead Man Walking (1995)

Ghandi (1982)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Philidelphia (1993)


Evita (1997)

The Lion King (1994) G

Black Panther (2018)

Saving Private Ryan (1992)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Milk (2009)


Category- Temperance

The temperance domain is made up of four character strengths; modesty, prudence, mercy, and self-regulation. According to Niemiec, temperance is the category least portrayed in cinema and it’s one of the hardest to identify. It’s interesting to note that our movie heroes rarely show restraint in drinking, drug use, eating, behaving aggressively and having sex.


The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Green Mile (1999)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Man on Fire (2004)

Crash (2004)

Cinderella (2015)


Ghandi (1982)

Mary and Max (2009)

The Music Man (1962)

Brian and the Boz (2014)

Roxanne (1987)

Clueless (1995)

Prudence & Self-Regulation

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Unbroken (2014)

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Category- Transcendence

The final domain is the virtue of transcendence. Transcendence is described as an individual moving beyond the ordinary range of human experience and understanding. I think of transcendence as living for the greater good. The strengths that fall under this virtue include appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. Transcendence can elicit a number of positive emotions that are related to our happiness including joy, awe, and admiration. Films in this category may contain a spiritual message or a feeling of deeper connection with something bigger than oneself.
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

Frida (2002)

Pocahontas (1995) G

WALL-E (2008) G

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Race (2016)

March of the Penguins (2005) G

Into The Wild (2007)


Freaky Friday (2003)

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Trading Places (1983)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Pay It Forward (2000)

The Blindside (2009)


Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Miracles From Heaven (2016)

Freedom Writers (2007)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

The Help (2011)


Austin Powers (1997)

Something About Mary (1998)

Anchorman (2004)

Meet the Parents (2000)

Zoolander (2001)

Ace Venture Pet Detective (1994)


Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

Wild (2014)

Samsara (2011)

Little Buddha (1993)

Amadeus (1984)

If you think of one not on this list, please send it our way and we’ll add it. Get your popcorn ready and happy binge-watching!