Joy to the World – Empathy and Positive Emotions

Empathy is the ability to perceive and react to another person’s emotions. Much attention has been paid to empathy regarding negative emotions, but little is known about how (or if) we respond to positive emotions in the same way. Now, a new study reports that joy may be harder to share than distress.

Psychology researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the neural networks of 21 adults in response to positive and negative emotional stimuli. The participants had an average age of 29 years and had no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders or psychoactive drug use. The participants were given short stories describing a fictional character who shared the same gender and some demographic and trait characteristics as the participant. The participants then underwent neuroimaging while reading sentences that described positive and negative emotional states of themselves and the previously-introduced fictional character. They ranked the level or joy or distress they felt on a 10-point scale.

The brain scans of the participants showed that areas of the brain known to participate in empathy reacted more to negative emotions of others than positive ones. Overall, the authors concluded that humans have a remarkable ability to share the pain and suffering of others, but do not share happiness with the same intensity.

Empathy is fundamental to human emotion and social experience and it has strong evolutionary roots. Empathy provides information about peoples’ actions and about the environment; empathy provides motivation for pro-social behavior, cooperation, and communication — all important survival skills for many species. Understanding and responding to negative emotions allows more of these benefits than reacting to positive emotions. Selfishly, sharing joy has little benefit for an individual, according to the authors of the current study.

Still, happiness and positive emotions are associated with an overall improved well-being, and, while it may be easier for the brain to experience the pain of others, constantly feeling distress carries negative physical consequences for the empathetic individual. Evolution may dictate that negative emotions have more to do with self-preservation and perpetuating the life span of a species than positive ones, but, socially, mentally, and physically, positive emotions are the ones that make life worth living. So, in this joy-filled time of year, challenge your brain to share some cheer, spread some glad tidings, and delight in other’s pleasures and treasures.


Bernhardt BC, & Singer T (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 1-23 PMID: 22715878

Danziger N, Faillenot I, & Peyron R (2009). Can we share a pain we never felt? Neural correlates of empathy in patients with congenital insensitivity to pain. Neuron, 61 (2), 203-12 PMID: 19186163

de Vignemont F, & Singer T (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in cognitive sciences, 10 (10), 435-41 PMID: 16949331

Perry D, Hendler T, & Shamay-Tsoory SG (2012). Can we share the joy of others? Empathic neural responses to distress vs joy. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 7 (8), 909-16 PMID: 22156723

Image via iko / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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