Susan Pinker is a psychologist and author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier and Happier.
There are lots of ways to show empathy for someone in pain. You could call and listen to what's wrong. Better still, invite them over for a meal. If they're not up to going out, you could bring over their favourite foods, send flowers or a handwritten note. An e-mail offering sympathy might be appreciated if you're far away and the message is heartfelt. In it you could ask how you can help.
Clicking an icon on Facebook to express empathy has to be the laziest, most inadequate reaction to other people's misfortune.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced that a new, to-be-determined feature – first thought to be a thumbs-down dislike button – will allow us to express empathy for our friends' misfortunes with a click.
Explaining that the public has been clamouring for an ability to dislike bad news for some time, Mr. Zuckerberg told Business Insider, "What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment."
Being human, I know something about that. One year ago, the day before my new book was launched, I was hit by a pickup truck while walking on the sidewalk. Instead of chatting about my book with a CBC Radio host, I was knocked unconscious and found myself coming to in the scanner in the trauma unit. I was too injured to walk or think, so my book tour was cancelled. As soon as I regained my mobility, my father became ill and started to lose his. He died a few months later.
The empathy expressed by many people in my circle via containers of soup, lifts, visits, hugs and sincerely penned notes were the only upsides to eight months of what Zuckerberg would call "not good moments."
Their acts had a physical impact on me. The science of empathy is still young, but what we know is that to influence someone else's emotional state, hormones are key. Oxytocin is released when we make eye contact and reach out to someone in person, according to neuroscience research. A hug, a pat on the arm – even just a handshake – is enough to release this neuropeptide, which tamps down stress, kills pain and fosters tissue repair. Supportive contact releases what has been dubbed "the cuddle chemical" because all mammals, but especially mothers and babies, secrete it when they're close enough to nurture and be nurtured.
No matter how old we are, all of us respond to oxytocin, which not only helps us feel better at times of stress but also fosters trust and a sense of belonging – so crucial during bad times, when people often feel alone. As one of the body's homegrown analgesics, oxytocin offers pain relief while allowing people in close proximity to be in tune with each other's emotions and intentions, a cognitive trick called "mind-reading."
Surprisingly, it's not only the person on the receiving end who gets the benefits. A team led by the UCLA neuroscientist Shelley Taylor has shown that oxytocin is produced in the one offering support, too.
None of this biochemical give-and-take is available to those who simply text and click icons, according to research.
But there's one thing you can say about this upcoming Facebook button: It will be convenient. No uncomfortable conversations about death, pain or loss; a micromovement of the fingertips hovering over your digital device – wherever you happen to be – is all that's required. You don't even have to look a person in the eye or hear their voice. With "dislike" you're completely protected from other people's distress.