little girls hugging each other

Empathy vs. Love: Does the difference matter?

Valentine’s Day kicks off a spring season of love. We take stock of our relationships, whether platonic or romantic, and seek creative ways to display our affection. In January Harvard researchers Robert Waldinger and Marc Shultz released new takeaways from the longest study on human happiness, which underscores the vital role relationships, or as they call it social fitness, play in our health. According to their data, loneliness is associated with a significant reduction in lifespan–even greater than the reduction caused by smoking or obesity. Such staggering data leaves a person wondering, how do I create these meaningful connections in the first place?

Let’s investigate two key relationship players, empathy and love. 

Are empathy and love the same thing? 

In contemporary terms, empathy and love are not the same. Love is defined as warm affection for another. The word love in the English language can be used interchangeably in a variety of relationships to express connection, attachment, intimacy and, in romantic circumstances, attraction.

Empathy, on the other hand, focuses on the tactical ways we connect with others. It incorporates three elements: honoring another’s perspective, sitting with the person and their feelings, and finally, taking supportive action. Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy, known as pity for others’ hardships, which concerns the feelings of the listener but not those of the person needing support. 

The distinction becomes clear when reflecting on the following question: is it possible to have empathy for someone you don’t love and vice versa? My answer is yes. For example, you can empathize with strangers in crisis on the other side of the world and feel compelled to protest or send a donation. Also, you may have a relative, or perhaps a former significant other, whom you continue to love, long after your empathy for them has dried up. All of our relationships have intricate layers, and this makes categorizing them less like sorting a box of crayons and more like viewing a kaleidoscope.

From my perspective, empathy and love have many commonalities worth examining. First, they both take courage to activate, practice, and maintain. Initiating the first move in a social situation, especially if you’ve experienced rejection in the past, can be nerve-wracking, and well-intentioned missteps are likely to occur at some point in almost all relationships. This is why a mindset of “curious humility” can come in handy, when approaching the feelings of your acquaintances and loved ones.

Second, both enable forms of commitment to another being, albeit an empathic action could take place in a single instance while a loving action implies ongoing dedication. Fearful of burning out on love? You can rest easy given that our capacity for empathy and love are, in effect, bottomless. Moreover, holding the belief that empathy is a finite resource has its own risk and may make people less likely to exhibit empathic behavior. To clarify, believing in a fixed personal capacity to care for others ought not to be confused with setting limits within relationships. Love and empathy alike thrive when healthy boundaries reduce codependence and promote interdependence.

Third, empathy and love generate a rush of emotions not only when given, but also when received. This is due to physiological factors at play that scientists continue to unveil. Endocrinologist Krishna Seshadri defines love as “an ancient cocktail of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters”; meanwhile, neuroscientists at the University of Toledo argue that the majority of the empathy circuits discovered thus far involve the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. Given the biological orchestra working in the background, it is no wonder our brains can recall tender life moments in magnificent detail, even decades later. 

Don’t forget the self, too

In addition to exercising love and empathy in our relationships with others, we can and should turn these practices on ourselves. The concepts of self-love and self-empathy might feel foreign at first; however, these practices set the foundation to receive genuine care from family and friends. If someone were to enter a situation feeling unworthy of affection, then they might rebuff sincere gestures, thereby undermining the attempts at connection. In contrast, when someone enters a relationship with a belief they are deserving of love, this creates space for three relationship must-haves: vulnerability, intimacy, and reciprocity. 

On my journey to heal some childhood trauma, I’ve noticed that the more I grow my self-love and self-empathy, the more my compassion grows for others from my past. Over time, waves of forgiveness wash over me, revealing a common humanity in which all of us are doing the best we can with the tools we’ve been given.

Empathy as a Tool for Deepening Loving Connections

Don’t get me wrong, recalling humbling moments of kindness I’ve received also brings happy tears. I grab tissues whenever I remember how my spouse prepared elaborate recipes after my abdominal surgery, how a boss listened to my early career aspirations and said, “Let’s make it happen!”, and how two teenagers in Cape Town protected my wallet and translated for me after an immobilizing car accident. What the above examples illustrate is that love and empathy, when knitted together, can make for profound moments of connection, even among colleagues and strangers. 

What might happen if we were to empathize with our loved ones with greater intention and frequency?  To what extent would it make a difference to love those we greet in passing? Perhaps the spark of daily life would burn brighter if we aimed to unite the two more often. Let’s try it and see what happens.

P.S. Continue your exploration of these themes at home and in the classroom with the Empathy Hearts activity.

Cherilyn G. Leet is the Director of Education and Partnerships at Six Seconds. In her role, she seeks to  partner with mission-aligned organizations to achieve the organization’s goal of 1 billion people practicing emotional intelligence.