While those in the world of mindfulness may be well aware that empathy toward others is a recipe for a feeling of wellbeing within oneself, for many people, just how to increase a sense of empathy can be a challenging subject.
Many people struggle with feeling empathetic towad others. To be sure, when empathy isn’t expressed, it isn’t gained either. So if this is the case, how does one go about increasing empathy?
And, further, is it possible that animals, namely horses, can help us to feel more empatheic toward one another?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at how empathy is defined, and what factors in human relationships can facilitate it.
When kids have secure attachment relationships (so that they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support) they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989).
An interesting experiment suggests that higher levels of oxytocin can help people better “decode” the emotional meanings of facial expressions. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes. Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men were better at interpreting the emotions of the people in the photographs (Domes et al 2006).
So perhaps kids find it easier to understand the emotional signals of others if they are well-supplied with their own, naturally-produced oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when people experience pleasant touching (like hugs and massage). It’s also produced when people engage in pleasant social interactions (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).
So now, let’s take a look at how horses may help us increase empathy.