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The Difference Between Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy, and Altruism

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The Goal is Compassion

Compassion has always been the foundation of my work and life, and it is the topic of my next book, A Year of Compassion: 52 Weeks of Living Zero Waste, Plant-Based, and Cruelty-Free.

Compassion is why I’m vegan. But veganism is not my goal. Compassion is.

I don’t strive to be as vegan as I can be. I strive to be as compassionate as I can be.

When we think being vegan is the destination to reach, we treat it as an ideology and obsess over trying to be perfect and pure.

I don’t live according to veganism. I live according to compassion.

Compassion vs. Sympathy, Empathy, and Altruism

Personally, I find compassion to be one of the most powerful, universal, and life-altering human experiences, and I also find it to be gravely misunderstood.

So, as we continue to explore this topic together, let’s start with the basics — the difference between sympathy, empathy, altruism, and compassion.


Sympathy involves understanding and acknowledging another person’s emotions and feelings, especially in times of difficulty or suffering. It’s about showing concern, support, and care for someone’s well-being. However, sympathy doesn’t necessarily require a deep emotional connection or putting oneself in the other person’s shoes.


Empathy takes things a little deeper; it is the ability to experience for yourself some of the pain that the other person may be experiencing. It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear. You do not need to have experienced exactly the same events as the person who is suffering, but you do need to have the ability to really imagine how they must be feeling in their situation.

Empathy is a vicarious experience – if your friend is feeling afraid, you too will experience a feeling of fear in your body; if they are sad, you too will feel sorrow. Feeling empathy is allowing yourself to become tuned into another person’s emotional experience. It takes courage and emotional resonance. Altruism:


Altruism refers to the selfless concern and actions taken for the well-being of others, often without any personal gain or expectation of reciprocation. Altruistic behaviors involve helping, supporting, or benefiting others with genuine kindness and concern, though it may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion — for example, making a donation for tax purposes — but it is driven by a desire to make a positive impact on someone else’s life.


Compassion combines both empathy and altruism. If empathy is the ability to experience the feelings and pain of another, compassion translates that feeling into action. Compassion involves an empathic response as well as altruistic behavior, but compassion is characterized by feeling empathetic toward someone’s struggles and understanding their pain — and then taking action to alleviate that suffering.

It moves us emotionally, but it moves us to ACT. Action is the key difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

We’ll return to this topic again and again, including:

  • what the fundamental principles of compassion are
  • how compassion is so misunderstood
  • why having compassion for people who do wrong does not condone bad behavior
  • how to cultivate compassion

and so much more. In the meantime, the etymology of these words might also be a helpful way to differentiate between them.

Etymology of Sympathy, Empathy, Altruism, and Compassion

Sympathy: The word “sympathy” comes from the Greek word “sympatheia,” which means “fellow feeling” or “community of feeling.” The term is formed from “syn” (together) and “pathos” (feeling or suffering), reflecting the idea of sharing emotions with others.

Empathy: The term “empathy” originated from the German word “Einfühlung,” which translates to “feeling into.” It was used in aesthetics to describe the process of projecting oneself into a work of art. It’s derived from the Greek “em-” (in) and “pathos” (feeling or emotion).

Altruism: The word “altruism” has its roots in the Latin word “alter,” meaning “other.” It was introduced into English in the mid-19th century and was used to describe the principle or practice of unselfish concern for the welfare of others. The term “altruism” was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, derived from the Latin “altrui” (of or to others).

Compassion: “Compassion” comes from the Latin word “compassio,” which means “suffering with.” The term is formed from “com-” (together) and “pati” (to suffer). It signifies the act of sharing in the suffering of others, demonstrating a deep understanding and willingness to help alleviate their pain.

What are your thoughts about compassion? I would love to hear from you.

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