America is a country in deep pain. The coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, economic insecurity, political polarization, misinformation and general daily uncertainty dominate our lives to the point that many people are barely able to cope. And life wasn’t exactly a cakewalk before 2020. Out of all the fears, stresses and indignities our citizens are living with, there emerges a kind of primal insecurity that undermines every aspect of life right now. It’s no wonder that anxiety, depression and other psychological problems are on the rise.

Whenever people are troubled or hurting or dealing with serious problems, they want to feel that other people understand what they are going through and are concerned. But opportunities to give and receive empathy feel less than adequate these days: decreased social interaction, online get-togethers, air hugs and masked conversations are not quite up to the task—and people are often so preoccupied with their own struggles that they aren’t as attuned to other people’s problems as they otherwise might be.

On top of that, everyone is confronted with people who seem indifferent. Some of our leaders have dismissed the seriousness of their fellow Americans’ plight. Some ordinary Americans convey a lack of concern when they refuse to socially distance and wear face coverings, or criticize those who do. The fact that a recent Gallup poll showed that roughly a third of the country doesn’t think there’s a problem with race relations suggests that many people aren’t grasping other people’s perspectives.

You don’t have to be a social psychologist like we are to see that Americans are experiencing an empathy deficit. People everywhere lack the sense that others care, which makes the medical, economic, political and societal assaults on our fundamental trust in the world even harder to handle.

Fixing this empathy deficit is a challenge because it is not just a matter of having good political or corporate leaders or people treating each other with good will and respect. It is, rather, because empathy is a fundamentally squishy term. Like many broad and complicated concepts, empathy can mean many things. Even the researchers who study it do not always say what they mean, or measure empathy in the same way in their studies—and they definitely do not agree on a definition. In fact, there are stark contradictions: what one researcher calls empathy is not empathy to another.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern receives a hongi, a traditional Maori greeting, from Whale Watch Kaikoura General Manager Kauahi Ngapora after announcing further support for the tourism industry during the pandemic. Credit: Kai Shwoewer Getty Images

When laypeople are surveyed on how they define empathy, the range of answers is wide as well. Some people think empathy is a feeling; others focus on what a person does or says. Some think it is being good at reading someone’s nonverbal cues, while others include the mental orientation of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Still others see empathy as the ability or effort to imagine others’ feelings, or as just feeling “connected” or “relating” to someone. Some think it is a moral stance to be concerned about other people’s welfare and a desire to help them out. Sometimes it seems like “empathy” is just another way of saying “being a nice and decent person.” Actions, feelings, perspectives, motives, values—all of these are “empathy” according to someone.

None of these definitions is wrong. Like all concepts, empathy isn’t a “thing” we can point to or describe objectively. But, despite the conceptual squishiness, most people view empathy as having something to do with understanding what other people are going through and being concerned about them. And, this, we think, is what many people today feel like they are lacking.

Empathy is clearly on people’s minds more than in times past. Google searches for the word “empathy” equaled its all-time high the first week of June. There’s talk on television and radio about “empathy gaps,” and we hear the media compare politicians on how much empathy they have. President Trump is routinely said to have little empathy, whereas Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York are described as having high empathy. CNN reported that top Democrats praise Joe Biden as a man “defined by his decency and empathy,” and Time referred to Biden’s overtures to Americans as an “empathy offensive.” Even Michelle Obama devoted several minutes of her address at the 2020 Democratic Convention to the importance of empathy. But rarely does anyone say what they mean by the word.

Whatever people think empathy is, it’s a powerful force and human beings need it. These three things might help to remedy our collective empathy deficit:

Take the time to ask those you encounter how they are feeling, and really listen. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Remember that we all tend to underestimate other people’s emotional distress, and we’re most likely to do so when those people are different from us.

Remind yourself that almost everyone is at the end of their rope these days. Many people barely have enough energy to handle their own problems, so they don’t have their normal ability to think about yours.

Finally, be aware that what is empathy for one person may not be empathy for another person. It’s not a concept that speaks for itself. Asking your friends, family, and coworkers what empathy is for them might open a new door to understanding and helping those around us.