28/04/2014 08:35 BST | Updated 27/06/2014 06:59 BST

Empathy for the Human Condition Is Good For You

It happens all the time. You are driving in traffic, leaving a safe distance between you and the car ahead of you. Someone switches lanes in front of you and eliminates the cushion you were keeping. Perhaps your stomach gets a bit tight or your chest feels energized as you find yourself experiencing annoyance or even anger. A series of thoughts may arise such as "what a jerk!", "who taught him to drive?" or "drivers these days!" In this type of situation, it is a common human tendency to believe that the sensations and thoughts you are experiencing are the truth about the person you have never met in the car in front of you. Meanwhile, behind you is a person who has never met you who thinks that she knows some truth about the driver in front of her...

All of this reminds me of a word brought to my attention by a friend. The word "sonder" was originally used as a verb that means "to measure the depth of something, in particular, to measure the depth of (a body of water) with a sounding line." Recently, a new definition of the word sonder showed up on the website The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own--populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness--an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I think that this is a beautiful sentiment, and, despite the name of the website, I don't find it sorrowful at all. In fact, I find it quite uplifting to be reminded that each of us has such depth of experience. Further, I find it relieving to remember that I am responsible for my behavior, not for the complicated internal life of the people around me.

And there is good science behind all of this. It turns out that empathy is good for your well being. It is good for you to understand that there is humanity, depth, and complexity behind what other people are doing - even when you don't like or agree with their actions. Being compassionate toward oneself and toward others is connected with greater levels of fulfillment, enjoyment, and resilience, as well as psychological and physical health. Employers are also finding that empathy leads to greater engagement and productivity in the workplace.

Next time you are cut off in traffic, you might imagine that the person in front of you has fears, hopes, regrets, and dreams just like you. If you allow yourself to feel the complexity and depth of this person's humanity for just a moment, you might find that the drive is just a bit more enjoyable.

Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to tap into their incredible capacity to respond calmly, positively, and purposefully in any situation. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit

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