Did you know that empathy has two sides? Dr. Marina West did not. She only shared other people’s suffering, never their joy. She had gone into medicine because she wanted to alleviate people’s suffering, but she had gotten depressed herself. Dr. West learned cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and found her depression lifted as she began feeling both sides of empathy.
The definition of empathy is: “to understand and share the feelings of another.” This includes feelings that are “positive” and “negative”. Both joy and sorrow. Yet culturally we have tended to focus only on the sharing in other people’s suffering and neglected to focus on sharing in other people’s joy.
Sharing in other people’s joy has been given various names, including “positive empathy” or “vicarious joy”.
Dr. West realized that she was not feeling any of this when one of her good friends got married. She was having coffee with a third friend who said how happy she was for their mutual friend’s upcoming nuptials. Dr. West knew she was supposed to feel this way too, but the truth was that she, in fact, felt the opposite. She didn’t feel happy at all for their friend’s romance and wedding.
The method of CBT is based upon the fact that the way we think about something is what causes the way we feel about it. We often don’t realize this though because our thoughts go by so quickly we don’t realize what we are thinking. The method of CBT involves identifying our thoughts, in particular our stressful thoughts. If we discover a stressful thought that we have believed for a long time, this is called a “core belief”.
Dr. West discovered a core belief about joy and suffering that she had not realized she had before doing CBT. Her core belief was that there was an unlimited supply of suffering, but a limited supply of joy in the world. She thought of suffering like air. It was abundant and everywhere. She thought of joy instead like a pile of diamonds. So, if one person got some, there was less joy for everyone else.
This unconscious core belief explained to Dr. West why she was not happy for her friend getting married. Dr. West herself was single and wanted to find love also. With this core belief, she thought that her friend finding love and marriage meant there was somehow less for her.
Luckily, Dr. West used the CBT method to challenge this core belief, and found that upon investigation, it made no sense to her. The first question in CBT is whether our stressful thought is true? Is there evidence to support it? Dr. West quickly determined that the answer to this question was no! Why would pain be limitless and joy limited?
Dr. West had always called herself empathetic, but in doing CBT she realized that she had been missing a great deal. She realized she had felt important calling herself an “empath”. She realized that she had failed to see that it was even more important to share in people’s sufferings and their joys.
We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” This is a Latin phrase that means: whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. This is also called “confirmation bias”. Dr. West had only been looking for suffering, and had not been looking for joy, without realizing she was doing this. Now, after using CBT, she began consciously looking for joy. She, of course, found it everywhere, including in her patients. There are many health benefits from sharing joy. So, Dr. West began to teach her patients about “positive empathy” as well. Her joy, and their joy, increased exponentially!
Sharing joy strengthens our sense of connection with other people. The neural pathways involved in empathy are modulated by neuroendocrine mechanisms. In particular, the neruopeptide oxytocin plays a very important role in joyful social interactions, and, as a result, in enhancing cognitive empathy (a happy feedback loop). The past decades have seen an explosion of studies on empathy in various academic domains, including neuroscience, psychology, economics, and medicine.
When another person is happy do you feel uplifted by their accomplishments and joy? If so, then you are experiencing positive empathy or vicarious joy. By feeling your own joy and other people’s joy, you are doubling the amount of joy in your life.
Morelli, S.A., Lieberman, M.D. & Zaki, J. (2015). The Emerging Study of Positive Empathy. Social & Personality Psychology Compass. 9(2). 57-68.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (2016). The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery-Penguin Random House, New York, NY.