And here it is, our fifth and final installment of The Think Tank’s Guide to a Better Brain. Most of us are taught from an early age that empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is good for us. Here at The Think Tank, it’s not enough for us to be told to do something. We have to know why!
It feels good! Ever notice your day gets a little better every time you lend a true listening ear to a struggling friend, colleague or family member? Well, there’s real science behind that. Jordan Grafman, PhD, used imaging technology to see what happened in the brain when subjects were given an opportunity to give money to charity, keep the money for themselves or not give anything at all. Dr. Grafman and his team found giving to charity activated pleasure centers of the brain that fire up when we eat delicious food or have sex. Their findings showed that, contrary to the belief we are born with selfish urges, unselfishness may be a natural, hard-wired and pleasurable instinct for us.
Numerous other studies show people reported feeling a lot better when they helped others or contributed to a cause they believe in. Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, conducted a study of 630 Americans to see how spending habits affected one’s happiness. Regardless of income level, results showed test subjects felt significantly happier when they spent money on others or charitable causes. Meanwhile, those who did spend money on themselves did not report any increased happiness at all.
It’s good for our relationships. Last week, we wrote in length about why socialization is good, not just for our brains but for our relationships as well. In the same study described above, Dr. Grafman found a part of the frontal lobe was also activated when participants gave money to charity. This part of the brain houses receptors for oxytocin, which promotes socialization. It may seem common sense that empathy leads to deeper social networks, but science can now show a chemical reasoning behind it.
It’s good for our bodies. By now we know an elevated sense of emotional well-being, driven in part by empathy and socialization, leads to a host of health benefits. As we exercise empathy and strengthen our social networks more and more in our daily lives, we reap the rewards physiologically. While at the University of Michigan, Stephanie Brown, PhD, found that caregiving behavior may actually be linked to decreased mortality. In addition, researchers from UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina found those with a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.
It’s good for others. As if these aren’t good enough reasons to be more empathetic every day, a landmark study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that empathy may help reduce the emotional and psychological burdens of others. Researchers interviewed nearly 900 caregivers who care for terminally ill patients. The interviews revealed that caregivers who took care of patients with complex needs, such as transportation, nursing care and personal care, were less likely to be depressed when their doctors expressed empathy. The caregivers were also less likely to feel like their caregiving responsibilities interfered with their personal lives. Imagine the good you can do for others just by lending a listening ear!
So that’s it, folks. We all want a better functioning brain, which leads to healthier bodies, more fruitful relationships and a higher sense of well-being, and we hope these five blog posts helped you take another step toward that. Cheers!
*Up for a challenge? Researchers believe there’s much more good that can be done if we take empathy one step further and show compassion. For more information on the difference between empathy and compassion and how we can cultivate compassion every single day, read on!