“I can feel your sadness.” This is a declaration we are certainly hearing frequently these days. And it’s not to be taken lightly. Experiencing another person’s sadness, for example, and having the ability to share in their feelings is called emotional empathy. It is emotional empathy that helps us build emotional connections with other people and ultimately serves as the thread of our existence as social beings.
Our ability to share in the joy of another person’s success or achievement, as well as our sense of heartbreak when someone experiences a personal tragedy, are fundamental elements of our social fabric. Simply stated, our social existence depends deeply on our ability to participate in the emotional experiences of others.
As such, emotional empathy needs to be preserved and nurtured. As it turns out, simply depriving oneself of a good night’s sleep is associated with a significant reduction in the ability to experience emotional empathy. This was recently demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research in which researchers studied 37 healthy subjects who underwent a computerized test measuring their levels of emotional empathy. The test subjects were assigned to receive this test either before and after a night of total sleep deprivation, before and after a usual night of sleep spent at home, or twice during the same day without the influence of sleep.
What the researchers found teaches us an important lesson. The study revealed that levels of emotional empathy in the group deprived of sleep were significantly lower than either those who received a full night of sleep or those who were tested during the day. In fact, those who were tested during the day had about the same level of emotional empathy as those who had received a good night’s rest.
Here’s what the authors concluded:
Our results indicate that a night of sleep loss impairs the ability to share the emotional state of others, which is an important skill in everyday social interactions in both the workplace and personal life. These findings are consistent with previous research revealing negative effects of sleep loss on cognition and emotional processing in general, and extend these effects to emotional empathy in particular.
Not getting enough restorative shut-eye is associated with all kinds of medical issues, including weight gain, obesity, heart disease, depression, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few. Now we know that sleep deficiency impairs our ability to experience emotional empathy, a human experience that is vital for us as we move forward and face the various challenges presenting themselves to us.
There is so much out there right now that threatens our ability to engage in a full night of restorative sleep, whether it’s fear and anger inspired by watching the news, concerns over the health and safety of our loved ones and friends, or even the challenge presented by the ever-present blue light given off by our various digital screens. But, as now seems clear, restorative sleep not only paves the way for our own health, but allows each and every one of us to better engage with the collective experience of humanity and make changes towards a better outcome, for all of us.