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We live in a world that cries out for more compassion and empathy. A world where we’re technologically hyper-connected and yet spiritually disconnected. It’s too easy for us to lose touch with the faceless “others” we encounter online. In our world where fearmongering is at it’s height, and deep connection has become diluted, we’re all prone to feeling isolated, alone, and with our empathy and compassion for others stretched thin.

And our mental wellbeing is paying the price. Today, people are more psychologically distressed than ever. According to Beyond Blue, 45% of Australian adults will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, and suicide is the leading cause of death amongst people aged 15 to 44.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. Our genetics, early history, exposure to trauma, our learned coping skills and resilience, temperament and personality, life stressors such as chronic illness, socioeconomic factors, and education.

A lot of these factors are outside of our control. We can’t go back in time and change our upbringing, for example. Luckily for us, one of the strongest contributors to mental health is emotional intelligence – something that we absolutely can change, if we choose. The stronger our emotional intelligence skills, the better our wellbeing and happiness, and the less likely we are to experience mental health conditions.

Emotional intelligence allows us to recognise and deal with our feelings, so that we can navigate social interactions, strengthen relationships, apply skills and knowledge in adaptive ways, deal with new situations, and recover from setbacks.

Two of the foundation stones of emotional intelligence are: empathy and compassion. If we want to respond to others in prosocial ways, take accountability for our own behaviour, and contribute to the greater good of the community, then we need empathy and compassion. The problem is that many of us go through life stifling these very skills, and shortchanging our mental health. Low emotional intelligence underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. As a culture, we’re still working on overcoming these social issues. Speciesism might be the final frontier. Because as long as we keep ignoring or denying our natural empathy and compassion for animals, we inhibit our own happiness and fulfillment.

We’re all born with a natural affinity for animals, and we have neurobiological systems that allow us to experience connection, love,  empathy, and compassion for them. Just ask anyone living with a companion animal. We share their emotions, they pick up on our emotions, and we experience a deep bond with them. It’s why pet assisted therapy is so useful for improving wellbeing in people with disabilities, chronic illness, or psychological distress.

When face-to-face with an animal, we connect with their spirit. We cannot look at our companion animal and see a commodity. We see a person.
And yet, while we so easily bond with a single animal, we might continue to unthinkingly participate in speciesism. We oppose the Yulin dog meat festival but willingly eat a pig. We oppose whaling but support aquatic theme parks that imprison those same animals. We find trophy hunting barbaric, but pay money to tourist “temples” that drug tigers for “entertainment”.

The disconnect is there. And when it’s brought to our attention, many of us choose to deny it or look the other way. And when we do, we put the brakes on our emotional intelligence.

Perhaps we even lose touch with our humanity.

Amongst the general population, speciesism barely registers as a social justice movement. Whenever animal rights or veganism are mentioned, we’re mocked, shamed, or attacked. For the majority, empathy and compassion only extend so far. To other humans, and maybe a handful of other species, like dogs and cats.

Of course, it wasn’t so long ago when empathy and compassion only extended as far as the colour of our skin.

Speciesism is a way of putting boundaries on compassion and empathy, which narrows emotional intelligence and lowers our chances at happiness and fulfillment.

Psychological studies show us that compassion promotes positive emotions and overall wellbeing. Luckily for us, compassion can be cultivated, through training. People who undergo compassion training (e.g. kindness meditation) report more positive moods and higher levels of wellbeing. Even neuroimaging studies show that compassion activates the neural circuits involved with positive emotion and connection.

The only reason people choose to be speciesist is because it’s a cultural norm. For most people, it’s not even a choice – but rather, a habit, that’s been passed down through families and instilled by parents, teachers, and our education system. Making a decision to opt-out of speciesism is like unplugging from the Matrix. When we were immersed in it, we had no idea. But when we’re aware of it, we realise just how dangerous it can be.

Empathy is heightened when we feel a kinship with someone. We have more empathy for people we consider to be “like us”, whether that’s based on gender, sexuality, age, skin colour, religion, ethnicity, occupation, or something else. The reason why racism, sexism, and speciesism has proliferated (and continues to exist) is because people were viewed as “different” and therefore “inferior”.

Animals have more in common with us than we realise. They form bonds. They have friends. They play. They nurture. They love their children. They help one another.

Just like us.

Empathy allows us to experience the emotions of another – literally. The same neural circuits are activated whether we experience something ourselves, or experience it vicariously by observing another. But empathy on its own isn’t enough. When we see someone suffering, it’s not enough to just experience their suffering – we also need compassion, too. Compassion is what mobilises us to take action, to alleviate their suffering. Compassion motivates us and causes us to act. Empathy on its own can lead to distress (known as “empathic” distress), which causes us to retreat, withdraw, and self-protect.

Connecting with pigs in their last moments at a vigil outside a slaughterhouse in Laverton, Victoria

There are many reasons why people shut down empathy and compassion for animals. Perhaps guilt and shame for participating in animal cruelty, or perhaps anger at the audacity of someone (vegan activists) to disrupt the comfortable bubble of the status quo. The discomfort that people experience when their actions are incompatible with their beliefs, is known as cognitive dissonance. And the problem with denial or retaliation is that it doesn’t reconcile the discomfort that people feel by going against their innate affinity for animals.

Perhaps speciesism is the final frontier when to comes to maximising our emotional intelligence and mental health. If we can feel empathy and compassion for beings who are superficially different to us in almost every dimension, then perhaps we can end all forms of discrimination and oppression.

Author: Dr Ash Nayate
Author of Staying Positive in a F*cked Up World

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