By Adam Hoffman
Empathy can be painful.
Or so suggests a growing body of neuroscientific research.
When we witness suffering and distress in others, our natural tendency to empathize can bring us vicarious pain.
Is there a better way of approaching distress in other people? A recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that we can better cope with others' negative emotions by strengthening our own compassion skills, which the researchers define as “feeling concern for another's suffering and desiring to enhance that individual's welfare.”
“Empathy is really important for understanding others' emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others,” says Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the lead author of the study. “When we share the suffering of others too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.”
The research team sent study participants to a one-day loving-kindness meditation class, which utilized techniques and philosophies from Eastern contemplative traditions. Participants, none of whom had prior meditation experience, practiced extending feelings of warmth and care toward themselves, a close person, a neutral person, a person in difficulty, and complete strangers, as a way of developing their compassion skills.
Both before and after the training, participants were shown videos of people in distress (e.g., crying after their home was flooded). Following exposure to each video, the researchers measured the subjects' emotional responses through a survey. Their brain activity was also recorded using an fMRI machine, a device that tracks real-time blood-flow in the brain, thereby enabling the scientists to see what brain areas were active in response to viewing the videos.
They found that the compassion training led participants to experience significantly more positive emotion when viewing the distressing videos. In other words, they seemed better able to cope with distress than they did before the training -- and they coped better than a control group that did not receive the compassion training.
“Through compassion training, we can increase our resilience and approach stressful situations with more positive affect,” says Klimecki.
The positive emotional approach was accompanied by a change in brain activation pattern: Before the training, participants showed activity in an “empathic” network associated with pain perception and unpleasantness; after the training, activity shifted to a “compassionate” network that has been associated with love and affiliation.
Their new brain-activation patterns more closely resembled those of an “expert” who had meditated every day on compassion for more than 35 years, whose brain was scanned by the researchers to provide a point of comparison. This result suggests that the training brought about fundamental changes in the ways their brains processed distressing scenes, strengthening the parts that try to alleviate suffering -- an example of neuroplasticity, when the brain physically evolves in response to experience.
Negative emotions did not disappear after the loving-kindness training; it's just that the participants were less likely to feel distressed themselves. According to Klimecki and her colleagues, this suggests that the training allowed participants to stay in touch with the negative emotion from a calmer mindset. “Compassion is a good antidote,” says Klimecki. “It allows us to connect to others' suffering, without being too distressed.”
The main takeaway is that we can shape our own emotional reactions, and can alter the way we feel and respond to certain situations. In other words, says Klimecki, “Our emotions are not set in stone.”
So is taking a compassion course like the one offered through this study the only way to build compassion? Not necessarily. Research suggests you can cultivate a compassionate mindset through encouraging cooperation, practicing mindfulness, refraining from placing blame on others, acting against inequality, and being receptive to others' feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more, please visit www.greatergood.berkeley.edu.
Good For Teens' Mental Health
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/gratitude-teens-happier_n_1749118.html">Grateful teens are happier</a>, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association this year. Researchers also found that teens who are grateful -- in the study, defined as having a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/gratitude-teens-happier_n_1749118.html">positive outlook on life</a> -- are more well-behaved at school and more hopeful than their less-grateful peers. "More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world," study researcher Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, said in a statement.
Being constantly mindful of all the things you have to be thankful for can boost your well-being, research suggests. In a series of experiments detailed in a 2003 study in <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em></a>, daily exercise practices and listing off all the things you are thankful for are linked with a brighter outlook on life and a greater sense of positivity. "There do appear to exist benefits to regularly <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">focusing on one's blessings</a>," the researchers wrote in the study. "The advantages are most pronounced when compared with a focus on hassles or complaints, yet are still apparent in comparison with simply reflecting the major events in one’s life, on ways in which one believes one is better off than comparison with others, or with a control group."
Linked With Better Grades
Grateful high-schoolers have <a href="http://people.hofstra.edu/jeffrey_j_froh/spring%202010%20web/10.1007_s10902-010-9195-9.pdf">higher GPAs</a> -- as well as better social integration and satisfaction with life -- than their not-grateful counterparts, according to a 2010 study in the <em>Journal of Happiness Studies</em>. Researchers also found that grateful teens were less depressed or envious. "When combined with previous research, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge about the <a href="http://people.hofstra.edu/jeffrey_j_froh/spring%202010%20web/10.1007_s10902-010-9195-9.pdf">benefits of gratitude</a> in adolescents, and thus an important gap in the literature on gratitude and well-being is beginning to be filled," researchers wrote.
Makes You A Better Friend To Others
According to a 2003 study in the <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em></a>, gratitude could also boost pro-social behaviors, such as helping other people who have problems or lending emotional support to another person.
Helps You Sleep Better
Writing down what you're thankful for as you drift off to sleep can help you get better ZZs, according to a study in the <a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x/abstract">journal <em>Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being</em></a>. Specifically, researchers found that when people spent 15 minutes jotting down what they're grateful for in a journal before bedtime, they <a href="http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/minding-the-body/201111/how-gratitude-helps-you-sleep-night">fell asleep faster</a> and stayed asleep longer, <em>Psychology Today</em> reported.
Strengthens Your Relationship
Being thankful for the little things your partner does could make your relationship stronger, according to a study in the journal <em>Personal Relationships</em>. <em>The Telegraph</em> reported on the study, which showed that journaling about the <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/7756775/Gratitude-for-little-things-is-key-to-relationships.html">thoughtful things your partner did</a> was linked with a beneficial outcome on the relationship.
Benefits The Heart
A 1995 study in the <em>American Journal of Cardiology</em> showed that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7484873">appreciation and positive emotions</a> are linked with changes in heart rate variability. <blockquote>[This] may be beneficial in the treatment of hypertension and in reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease.</blockquote>
Is Good For Team Morale
Athletes are <a href="http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ811262&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ811262">less likely to burn out</a> and more likely to experience high life satisfaction and team satisfaction when they are grateful, according to a 2008 study in the journal <em>Social Indicators Research</em> of high-schoolers.
Linked WIth Better Immune Health
Gratefulness is linked with optimism, which in turn is linked with <a href="http://women.webmd.com/features/gratitute-health-boost">better immune health</a>, WebMD reported. For example, a University of Utah study showed that stressed-out law students who were optimistic had more immune-boosting blood cells than people who were pessimistic, according to WebMD.
Protects You From Negative Emotions That Come With Extreme Loss
WebMD reported that negative events can boost gratitude, and that gratitude can help to <a href="http://women.webmd.com/features/gratitute-health-boost">boost feelings of belonging</a> and decrease feelings of stress. For example, a survey showed that feelings of gratitude were at high levels after 9/11, according to WebMD.