What are 'empathy bootcamps,' and can they help fight America's loneliness epidemic?

Even though we all feel lonely from time to time, chronic loneliness has become an epidemic that can cause serious health concerns like high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. According to a recent nationwide survey, nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonesome. Of even greater concern, contrary to previous studies, the latest findings suggest that young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 feel more isolated than older adults and that college students are lonelier than retirees.

Nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonesome. (Photo: Getty Images)
Nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonesome. (Photo: Getty Images)

While it’s easy to blame social media sites like Facebook and Instagram for the rise of this societal problem, frequent users of social media aren’t always lonelier than those who spend less time online. What the latest survey results do reveal, however, is that limiting “in-person” social interactions with others can cause us to feel more alone.

Now, Kelsey Crowe, a social worker and researcher in San Francisco, and her colleague Tracy Mulholland are tackling this public health crisis by setting up a novel workshop, called Empathy Bootcamp, in communities across the nation. This empathy-immersion course teaches people how compassion can strengthen their relationships and help decrease feelings of loneliness.

“I originally conceived of the idea while writing my book, There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, which guides people on ways to support their loved ones through difficult times. After talking with a colleague, I realized that I needed to teach people empathy etiquette in real time,” says Crowe.

According to Crowe, loneliness is often the result of frustrated attempts at human connection. Her bootcamp teaches participants practical tools, helping them break down communication barriers so they can become better friends, colleagues, and family members.

During the three-hour workshop, bootcamp participants learn about common empathy roadblocks, like anxiety and insecurity, that can keep us from reaching out to others. Crowe also outlines empathy basics and introduces empathy exercises. For example, group participants are encouraged to “step inside of someone else’s shoes” by imagining an unfamiliar hardship, like a friend’s illness, divorce, or job loss. Crowe asks everyone to compare that difficulty to a painful time in their own lives by asking, “What are the similarities between these two events?”

According to empathy researchers, cultivating compassion can do more than validate our emotions; it also unleashes curiosity, making it more likely that we’ll reach beyond our comfort zones to form new friendships. Recent studies even suggest that going out of one’s way to help strangers can bolster our mental health. And it’s this kind of social risk-taking that can prevent loneliness.

“My dad had recently died, and his death made me realize how our culture has a hard time talking about loss and empathy,” says Lila Dupree, an actor and producer who recently attended empathy bootcamp in Los Angeles.

Dupree recalls feeling lonely when loved ones couldn’t offer her a lot of emotional support. “When people in my life weren’t comforting after my dad died, I felt angry and alone. But the bootcamp helped me understand how to exercise empathy, even to those who couldn’t express it to me,” she says.

Not everyone who attends empathy bootcamp is grieving the death of a loved one. Crowe says many of the participants are looking to foster closer relationships. “A large number of young people have been drawn to the workshops because they’re open to the idea of self-improvement and long for human connection,” she says.

David Watterson, 32, attended a bootcamp in San Francisco hoping to learn how to engage more deeply with others.

“Men are not encouraged to talk about feelings, show weakness, or to get ‘too deep’ when discussing their problems,” he says, adding that even though he tries to reject these stereotypical messages, he still second-guesses how his male friends may respond to his warmth. “At times, this fear causes me to avoid expressing my care,” he says.

For Watterson, attending the camp taught him how to express gratitude, empathy, and kindness in simple yet meaningful ways.

“Because of the workshop, I’ve felt more encouraged to show gratitude, especially in my work life. The more I force myself to thank others who have helped me, the more I can recognize and appreciate their unique qualities,” he says.

In an effort to continue fostering deeper human connections, Crowe hopes to make empathy bootcamps just as common as meditation and yoga classes. Along with offering the camps in Portland, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, Crowe is teaching others how to become “empathy educators” so that interested community members can help fight loneliness in cities across the globe.

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