Empathy Project

Background: Could Australia become a mindful nation?

Dr Lynne Reeder
Australia21 Director and Empathy Project Leader

The concept of mindfulness has pervaded popular culture as an antidote to our increasingly fast-paced, tech-heavy lifestyles. But its application has far more potential than in colouring books and inspiring Facebook memes.

While a mindful, empathic and compassionate approach can be valuable for individuals, it also offers wide-ranging benefits for government, business, and society as a whole.

Neuroscience is increasingly reinforcing of the link between the mind and the body, with MRI technology helping us to literally see the physical impact of emotions, as areas of the brain light up in response to feelings such as fear and compassion.

The improved understanding of the way we react to emotions and their impact on behaviour has highlighted the value of mindfulness, empathy and compassion in a range of settings. For individuals, an understanding of these capabilities can help improve communication skills, reduce stress, professional burnout and de-escalate emotional states.

But, training in mindfulness, empathy and compassion also has the potential to improve economic and social outcomes far more broadly.

Wide-ranging potential benefits for government and business

The incorporation of mindfulness, empathy and compassion in decision-making and policy development can have a range of benefits for businesses, government, education and criminal justice.

Policies such as introducing widespread training in these capabilities ensures decision-makers can better understand the needs and circumstances of those who will be affected by their decisions and policies. As a result, service or product delivery would be more effective and efficient, as it would better suit the requirements of service users or clients.

A pilot study completed in 2016 by Australia21 asked participants who were in a position to influence policy to have a guided ‘empathy’ conversation with government service users experiencing financial difficulty. Participants reported the conversation enabled the two parties to make a connection, improving the influencers’ capacity to understand the positions and needs of the other participants, and make decisions accordingly. (Read the pilot study report.)Empathy Conversations - A Pilot Study

A more mindful, empathic approach can also provide influencers, leaders and employees with the tools to better manage their own emotions in order to make better decisions. While the modern world is sophisticated and fast-paced, our emotions have changed little from those experienced by our ancestors in the distant past. In previous times, our ‘reptilian’ brain was bent on survival against a range of physical threats; while these threats have diminished considerably, we can continue to respond in the same way to negative emotions, causing us to make automatic and self-serving decisions. In the 21st Century, individuals, companies and governments are better served if individuals have a greater awareness of emotions driving poor decisions, and work to respond better to these emotions. Training in mindfulness, empathy and compassion can promote this more thoughtful response and decrease the risk of negative emotion-driven poor decision-making.

As an example, a focus on empathic business and government practice could have been influential in the lead up to the global financial crisis. Consider the traders who made millions when they figured out how to ‘short’ the market prior to the financial collapse of 2008, and in so doing contributed to the global financial crisis. A move towards encouraging governments, businesses and individual employees to take greater responsibility grounded in the science of mindfulness would have many benefits in this kind of scenario.

An international perspective

The broader application of mindfulness training is already being considered internationally. In late 2015, the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group in the UK released its report Mindful National UK, which recommended that: ‘UK government departments should encourage the development of mindfulness programmes for staff in the public sector – in particular in health, education, and criminal justice, to combat stress and improve organisational effectiveness.’ Group president, Chris Ruane MP is working with the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford University to train UK parliamentarians in mindfulness.

In the United States, mindfulness is also on the political radar, with Congressman Tim Ryan having established ‘Mindfulness on Capitol Hill’ and written a book Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.

Mindfulness practices were established in the Dutch Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in 2014.

Could Australia become a mindful nation?

Australia now has the opportunity to employ this knowledge in political, business, education and community settings.

At one level, this is already happening in individual companies such as IBM and NAB, some universities, schools, and hospitals, which provide mindfulness and empathy training sessions for their employees, students and patients. However, this opportunity to benefit from new understandings of mindfulness, empathy and compassion is still very sporadic and does not allow for its systemic application.

To address this one of the world’s most respected neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, is calling on policy-makers internationally to inform themselves of the latest learning from the neurobiology of consciousness.

Speaking of the importance of better understanding our minds, Professor Damasio said, ‘The time will come when the issue of human responsibility, in general moral terms as well as on matters of justice and its application, will take into account the evolving science of consciousness. Perhaps that time is now.’

While there is still much debate on the definition and nature of human consciousness, Professor Damasio contends that CEOs, politicians and senior managers can no longer ignore the way in which the mind and body work together when making judgements and decisions that affect others. He said lawyers, judges, legislators, policy-makers, and educators needed to inform themselves of the neurobiology of consciousness in order to encourage the writing of laws that take into account how this knowledge could contribute in preparing future adults to better adapt to the stress of contemporary society.

In order to promote this understanding of the mind and body connection and its potential benefits, Australia21, supported by The University of Melbourne, ran the Mindfulness, Empathy and Compassion: The Building Blocks of a Mindful Nation forum on Friday 10 June 2016. The forum investigated the application of the skill of mindfulness, the competency of empathy, and the motivation of compassion in the decision making of Australia’s political, industry, health, education and community sectors. It brought together leading thinkers, policy makers and researchers in these areas, including UK MP Chris Ruane. Building on the work of Mindful Nation UK and Mindful Nation US, the forum assessed the contribution of mindfulness, empathy and compassion in an Australian context. More information, including the forum report and audio recordings of the forum sessions, at Workshops.

Interested? Why not join our Mindful Futures Network.

  • Empathy Conversations Pilot Study
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    A pilot study completed in 2016 by Australia21 asked participants who were in a position to influence policy to have a guided ‘empathy’ conversation with government service users experiencing financial […]

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