The Ripple Effect and Positive Empathy

If you throw a stone into a serene body of water, you are going to create a ripple. The edge of the stone will cut through the glass-like surface of the water before immediately beginning its descent to the sandy bottom, leaving only a series of expanding, circular waves behind.

This so-called “ripple effect” has become a cliche analogy for any situation in which one person or event influences another. In the context of the college campus, however, the metaphor becomes a bit more complicated.

Comparing the student body to a serene and tranquil pond leaves out the chaos and confusion that is distinct to the college experience. In my opinion, the undergraduate population is more properly represented by a vast and restless sea.

If you throw a stone into the swirling whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean, it is unlikely that you will be able to discern its impact. The circular ripples will inevitably be carried away with the crest of another passing wave.

Living alongside over 9,000 fellow students here at Boston College, it can be easy to feel as if you have little to no effect on the people around you. Surrounded by like-minded people, all of a similar age, it is often difficult to distinguish the impact of our individual actions from that of those around us. At times, this can lead us to feel irrelevant or disconnected from fellow members of the community.

Over time, however, I have come to believe that human beings are not all that different from sponges, particularly at this ripe age in which we find ourselves living on a college campus.

Between our teenage hormones and our partially undeveloped minds, there is no denying that, as a demographic, we are especially vulnerable to the influences we have on one another, constantly absorbing the energy and emotions which surround us. Our every action, word, or gesture is a stone that inevitably makes ripples, even if its impact is not evident upon first glance.

Unfortunately, one of the more powerful effects we have on each other is the influence of stress. We are often not aware of how susceptible we are to the tension and the anxiety of those around us. Each time we internalize the stress or negativity of another person, we experience the “ripple effect,” though it often feels more like a towering tsunami wave.

It is unrealistic to believe that we can simply overcome this innate inclination to be influenced by one another. But, perhaps there is a way to channel our mirroring tendencies into something more fruitful, for both ourselves and those around us. What if we decided to intentionally internalize other people’s positivity, instead of subconsciously absorbing their stress?

In her article “How to Overcome Stress by Seeing Other People’s Joy,” Dr. Kelly McGonigal refers to this as the concept of “positive empathy.”

What makes “positive empathy” so powerful, she says, is that it offers us an ever-accessible source of joy. Many people harbor the notion that happiness is dependent strictly on external circumstances and on matching reality to the ideal visions in our minds.

Life is too short, however, to sit around waiting for such good fortune. How refreshing it is to realize that we need not wait—that another person acing their test, being asked on a date, or beating their mile time can be reason enough for us to smile and celebrate too.

Many people believe that in moments of stress or sorrow, it is best to be alone. When the weight of the world has us down, we have a tendency to isolate ourselves, naïvely believing that this is “what we need.” We flee to our dorms to watch Netflix in solitude, or to the basement of Bapst library, removed from the rest of the world.

Of course, there are times when seclusion is necessary. In moments of fear, pain, or sadness, however, let us not forget the healing powers of empathetic connection.

Though most would not like to admit it, there are times when we can be envious of another person’s success, particularly if we perceive their joy as something we cannot attain. For this reason, positive empathy must be intentionally cultivated. We must deliberately decide to broaden our perspectives so as to perceive the positive experiences of those around us as well.

We must decide that when others smile, we smile too.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor