Empathy: It's About Happiness, Too
When you hear the word empathy, what comes to mind? Understanding one's pain? Feeling badly for another person, much akin to sympathy? Or perhaps providing a shoulder to lean on?
To be sure, those are all kind things to do and can provide real assistance to those in distress. In fact, we need more people in this world showing this kind of empathy! But what about empathizing with one's joy?
Huh? I know, it sounds like a foreign concept or perhaps even an oxymoron. But empathizing is about happiness, too.
According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), empathy is "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."
Whew! That's a long definition. But what it really means is that empathy entails putting yourself in another's shoes in order to try to understand and appreciate what he or she is experiencing. And that includes both positive and negative experiences.
If empathizing with one's joy or good news feels alien to you, you're not alone. Researchers from Israel recently studied what happens in the brain when we empathize. What sets the study apart from others is that neural responses to sharing another's joy were explored as well as neural responses to sharing another's distress. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that the same parts of the brain are used to empathize with distress and with joy, but that the response is much more intense when the brain empathizes with distress. In other words, the brain was more accustomed to feeling one's pain than to feeling happy for someone. They concluded that humans have a wonderful ability to respond to the difficult challenges of others, but they may not be as adept at reacting to others' joy.
It's comforting to know that the brain is well-oiled to share another's distress, but I can't help but wonder what the world would be like if we reacted with equal intensity to another's joy? Can we train ourselves to do this, and would it make the world a better place?
If you are interested in cultivating your ability to be happy for others, here are some things to try (please note that these interventions have not been subjected to research):
- When someone tells you about some good news in his or her life, hug that person or touch his or her arm, if this is culturally appropriate for both of you.
- Look the person in the eye and ask him or her for more details about the happy circumstances.
- Tell others about the good news you just heard (if the news is not confidential), expressing your joy for the other person.
What other ideas do you have? Do you find it just as easy to empathize with one's joy as it is to empathize with one's sorrow? Let me know what works for you; your thoughts just might help someone.
Perry, D., Hendler, T., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2012). Can we share the joy of others? Empathic neural responses to distress versus joy. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 7(8), 909-916.