It's Mental Health Week in Canada. The theme empathy is a big topic for me as I recently made a dramatic shift in my focus as part of the latest update on my NOW page; currently, I have a strong feeling that being empathetic can be foundation of everything, including happiness in personal life, healthy mutual relationship with others, and sense of satisfaction on a job.
This spring, my physical and mental condition was the worst over the last few years for some reasons, and the experience gave me an opportunity to deeply appreciate the power of empathy that people shared with me. I'd like to leverage this Mental Health Week to look back on the experience. A key takeaway is that we all are extremely fragile, and paying attention to the things and people around us is a great way to complement the vulnerability in a collective way. Individuals are surprisingly powerless, and nobody's life is "solo" in a true sense.
First, I recently realized health risks of loneliness as part of daily learning routine; there is countless scientific evidence showing negative health impact of the symptom. In fact, an online health assessment that I took a couple of months ago displayed a big alarming message warning the point against my honest answers:
Wow, really?—That was my first reaction. For many years, I actually leveraged the lonely situation as a tool to eliminate external distractions and stay focused on my personal objectives. To be honest, I've never seen the condition in a negative way, and I didn't take the alert seriously.
Well, the original way of thinking works effectively as long as your world is "peaceful." However, a real problem will arise as soon as the world is interrupted by other obstacles such as stress, illness, injuries, and/or tragic events. In my case, I coincidentally encountered multiple abnormal events last month as follows:
- Had an exceptional amount of opportunities to consider Why should we build this?.1
- Blocked by several deadlines coming up simultaneously.
- Overwhelmed by a long to-do list that was piling up rapidly.
- Continuously suffered from the lack of sleep.
- Needed to see a doctor to address some health-related concerns.
- Spent hard time on practicing for Vancouver Marathon.2
It's like a chain. Importantly, nothing forcibly stops me from going down infinitely (e.g., family dinner time, appointment with friends) since I'm physically alone and didn't emit signals to the others. Each problem can be manageable standalone, but, if a lonely person fails to catch such warning signs early enough, the health risks become real.
Eventually, I suddenly started feeling I was almost burned out, and another online health assessment reported "You're possibly suffering from mild depression." Seriously...? I'm shocked how quickly I can be in such a bad condition, but I'm not too sure what exactly triggered the sudden deterioration at this specific point of time; the pandemic and working-from-home themselves won't be an excuse as I've already spent 2 years of uneventful life under the same circumstance, so it should be more like a complex multi-variable problem. Anyway, I think it's time to take the advice seriously because real health issues have already surfaced.
This is where empathy can help as a way of relief. In my experience, people (including me myself) tend to react differently when there is someone who is struggling with depression-line symptoms:
- Ignore: (No reaction)
- Invalidate: "Don't worry, you will be okay." Period.
- Care: "Are you okay? I'm here. Contact me anytime you need."
- Engage: "I want to listen to you. Let's talk/meet at XXX."
During the challenging period, I was fortunately able to have a few people who actively reached out to me in the Care/Engage-type of reactions, which are clearly the empathetic behaviors. I would like to thank each one of them. It helped me a lot. A LOT.
I find an article "The art of listening in six simple steps" is particularly useful to understand why Invalidate-type of response doesn't work and what the difference between (passive) hearing vs. (active) listing. Empathy is all about being mindful about the things and people around us, and we can make a proactive attitude to be with them.
Based on the experience, I learned how vulnerable but fortunate I am; even though the experience itself was painful, I was able to realize a fact that I'm surrounded by great people who are always willing to help. I usually dislike a phrase "Stay in touch!" because it rarely happens, but this time, I noticed the real meaning of the message—We can be in touch anytime whenever one needs another. I highly respect each of them, and I want to be the person like them. It's my turn to show empathy, and action items will be the same as what I listed in "Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking, Alcoholic, Obesity":
- For society: Donate, volunteer, join local community and interest group
- For personal relationship: Consistently have an opportunity to meet, talk, date, play with friends, colleagues, and loved ones
- For "myself": Mediate, sleep well, be positive e.g., by listing positive things before sleeping, smiling, wishing others’ happiness
According to a Canadian Mental Health Association's article, "empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed over time." Ultimately, the skill can also be applied to ethical product development as the principle is all about intrinsic motivation. All the extrinsic valuation such as monetary incentive and social acceptance are "virtual," and I strongly believe being present with empathy is the best and only way to find meaning in a job.
1. My standard way of working is to spend as much time as possible until I'm convinced by myself, but it is unfortunately inefficient in practice when the time is limited. ↩
2. Due to a mechanical issue on my knees, showing better performance on day-to-day running is not easy. Once I failed to maintain the balance for some reasons, I simply became nervous and anxious about an upcoming race. ↩
Support (Thank you!)
- Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking, Alcoholic, Obesity
- My 2021 Annual Review: A Year of Divergence (And Slowly Started Converging)
- Next "Dot" in Journey: Curiosity-Driven Job Change in Canada (Aug 2021)
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a product developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. Throughout my career, I have practically worked as a full-stack software engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, sales engineer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, and product manager. See my "now" page for more about what I am doing lately.
Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.