What Is Empathy In Positive Psychology?

What may come as a surprise to you is that you can have empathy for a person without wanting to help them.

What Is Empathy In Positive Psychology?

In positive psychology, empathy is defined as the quality of feeling and understanding another person’s situation in the present moment—their perspectives, emotions, actions (reactions)—and communicating this to the person. Positive empathy is the ability to share, celebrate, and enjoy others’ positive emotions.

The new, emerging concept of Positive Empathy is defined by the psychologists Morelli, Lieberman, Telzer, & Zaki as the “understanding and vicariously sharing others’ positive emotions.” The authors say imagining, recalling, observing, or learning of others’ positive outcomes can trigger positive empathy. They suggest it is uniquely related to prosocial behavior, sense of social connection, and subjective well-being.

Research indicates positive empathy is almost exclusively experienced in our close relationships, like our friends, romantic partners, roommates, family. (Gable & Reis, 2010). It may increase social closeness, intimacy, commitment, and trust. (Gable, Gosnell, Maisel, & Strachman, 2012). Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, it can be manipulated (Morelli & Lieberman, 2013; Molenberghs et al., 2014).

People may experience positive empathy in one of the three ways:
i) as a non-involved observer, like seeing someone win a quiz show on TV,
ii) as an involved observer, like hearing good news from a person themselves, or
iii) as a creator of a positive experience for someone else, like giving a gift.

Using Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), Barbara Fredrickson and her team showed several weeks of compassion training can have a beneficial impact on positive emotions, personal resources, and well-being during everyday life.

what-is-empathy

How To Measure Empathy?

Empathy can be measured in psychology. The Empathy Scale is a 64-item self-report measure developed by Robert Hogan in 1969. Two other self-report scales are the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) or The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ).

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What Are The Types of Empathy?

Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions, classifies empathy into three kinds:

  1. Cognitive empathy or perspective-taking: The recognizing and understanding of another’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is feeling by thinking. It is the form of empathy that psychopaths have lots of — they understand what causes you the most pain and torture you with exactly that — with zero sympathies towards you. So, a psychopath can feel empathy, but not sympathy (we talk of the difference later in this post). People who score higher on cognitive empathy have more grey matter in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain.
  2. Emotional empathy or affective empathy: The vicarious sharing of feelings after an emotional interaction. In this, you understand as well as feel how the shoe pinches the other person. The people in the medical care profession usually have this type of empathy; they fully understand and feel your pain. This type of empathic response is called empathic distress or personal distress. People who score higher on affective empathy have more grey matter in an area of the brain called the anterior insula.
  3. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern: The action part of the previous two types, or an impulse to act after understanding and feeling another’s experience. In this, after you can understand and feel the other person’s woe, you take action to resolve it for them. Compassion comes with a wish to act. In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other.
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Ekman with Friesen co-authored the brilliant book Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions. It gives you a set of special glasses to look into people’s faces and read the clues to when they flash anger, disgust, or contempt before they fully express the emotion. The book also carries exercises to train and get better at reading “facial deceit” and finding out when people lie via their facial expressions.

Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern is also about wishing to take action after you feel empathy for a person. Click To Tweet
Emotional Empathy vs Cognitive Empathy | North Brisbane Psychologists
Emotional v/s Cognitive Empathy

How Do We Empathize?

There are two theories to understand better how we empathize: 1. Simulation Theory, and 2. Theory of Mind

According to Psychology Today, the Simulation Theory, “proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like.”

There is also a biological dimension to this theory. Scientists found a tentative evidence of “mirror neurons” that activate as humans see and feel emotions. There are also “parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level types of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments.”

Other scientists believe in the Theory of Mind, which contradicts the experimental interpretation of empathy proposed by the Simulation Theory. It suggests the capacity to “understand what another person is thinking and feeling, based on the rules of how one should think or feel.” This hypothesis suggests individuals may use cognitive reasoning mechanisms to describe the emotional state of others. Through designing human behaviour models, individuals may predict or justify the actions of others, according to this hypothesis.

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Although there is no strong consensus, it is possible that empathy requires several mechanisms that include both natural, emotional responses and experienced, conceptual thinking. Depending on the circumstance and situation, we can cause one or both of the empathetic responses.

Final Words

Find out how these five brilliant scientists (Brene brown, Bruce Perry, Stephen Hawking, V. S. Ramachandran, Izabela Zych) see empathy as an important trait for humanity (tap the pic below):

scientists on why is empathy important
What these 5 scientists say on empathy?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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