Parents want to foster empathy in their kids. Citizens want more empathy from their leaders, and society in general. Being empathetic means to be able to sense someone else's emotions, and be able to imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. And that's a good thing for everyone to be able to do. "So how can I cultivate more empathy?" you may ask. That's a great question! Let's look at what research has found.
For a long time, research has shown that people with certain personality traits, such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, are more empathetic. And humans can increase their empathy by practicing mindfulness, listening actively (paying attention), reading fiction (that was news to me!), among other things. But a new study, recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that there is another predictor of empathy; our personal beliefs about happiness. More specifically, the authors studied how "people's beliefs about whether happiness is flexible, controllable, and internal, influence their empathy towards others. (empathy at a trait level) But those who felt that happiness is flexible, uncontrollable, and external were more likely to understand a depressed person's thoughts and feelings when viewing empathy from a state level (in a given situation, or state). The authors think that the difference between empathy as a trait, and empathy as a state, has to do with the difference between a human's beliefs and their actual behavior. Those humans who believe that happiness is controllable and internal, when faced with a depressed person's situation, might tend to believe that it's the person's own fault that they're depressed...happiness is controllable, after all. Those humans who believe that happiness is external and uncontrollable will see that same sad person with more understanding and more empathy (Poor guy. he's having some bad luck.). If we want more empathy, then, should we change our beliefs? Science tells us that the answer isn't that simple.
In yet another experiment, researchers tried to influence the test subjects beliefs about happiness, then measured their empathy. This didn't seem, however, to influence how empathetic the participants were. The authors of the study offered several explanations: 1. Perhaps empathy influences beliefs about happiness, rather than the other way around; 2. It is possible that some other human trait influences both empathy and beliefs about happiness; 3. The experiment did not successfully influence beliefs about happiness at all.
Researchers may not yet know whether or not altering their beliefs about happiness can change how empathetic a human is, but they know that beliefs do matter. We know already that our beliefs about happiness can, and do, influence our well-being and our satisfaction with life. And that's pretty great! But scientists and researchers are just beginning to unravel this this thing called empathy. I'm sure that more studies will be conducted to see if changing our views about happiness can directly affect our ability to empathize. This research is so important, especially now, when there are so many groups out there, all around the world, who feel that empathy is denied them.
Although we frogs aren't always the most empathetic of creatures; after all, many of us eat our our kind, this particular amphibian tries very hard to be as happy and as empathetic as possible. I guess that comes from having a wonderfully kind, caring, and loving mother. And from spending so much time with kind and caring humans. It's rubbing off on me, and I like the way that feels!