A simple study can emphasize the importance of empathy. Seriously, it is proved that helping other externalize their problems might help you develop new ways of problem-solving – and it just might be what you need.
Reach out a hand is one of the most beautiful actions you can do for a close friend or a loved one. But how is that helping you cope with your problems? Ph.D. Art Markman answers this question in our interview.
- According to the article you published on a recent study, entitled “Helping Other People With Their Problems Helps You Too“, you say that “writing about traumatic events can lead to better mental health in the long run“. Relating it to this generation’s teenagers, could this alternative sometimes give them a bigger trust and confidence to explore their feelings? How?
AM: It is important for people to be able to take traumatic moments and create a coherent story about them. Otherwise, the fragments of what people remember about these events can continue to get called to mind and can continue to cause anxiety.
It turns out that it is hard for everyone to express emotion (not just younger people). This is particularly true when the emotions are difficult ones. Putting words to emotions is also helpful, because it gives people a vocabulary for talking about things that bother them.
- Expressing intense feelings such as social anxiety, depression and other psychological issues can be very frustrating and hard. How would you advise people to open up and share their views? How important is this for their brain development and quality of life?
AM: It is important to understand that emotions are a reflection of the way your motivational system is working. When you are not able to achieve your goals, then you feel bad. When you are faced with things you want to avoid, then the negative emotions you experience are fear and anxiety.
Once you understand these sources of emotion, it becomes easier to talk about them. When you are feeling anxious, you should look for the things in your world that you are trying to avoid and then talk about them with other people. Sometimes you realize that the things you want to avoid aren’t really that bad. At other times, people may give you strategies for thinking differently about the situation that makes it less scary.
- In your professional opinion, could the lack of personal relationships – such as the causality of random people selected to use the app studied in your article – inspire individuals to be more truthful to their feelings or this doesn’t change the situation at all? Why does this happen?
AM: There are times when people are more likely to open up about things bothering them to strangers than they are to friends. With strangers, there is little danger that expressing your feelings and your fears will lead to negative judgments about you. It often takes a lot of trust between people who know each other before people will really open up about their troubles.
- In times like today, a lot is being said about empathy and its power towards both minor and major problems in society. Is this (the subject of your article) a form of practical empathy for people around the world? How does this help on a daily basis?
AM: Part of being able to help other people with their problems is being able to empathize with what they are feeling. When you are helping other people with their problems, it is always important to validate their feelings—that is to help them understand why it is ok to feel what they are feeling. Then, you can help them to think about the situation differently. That process of thinking differently about a problem is called reappraisal.
- Helpers are, in some cases, not professionals trained to deal with certain emotions, even if they feel like and think they can help. In a professional point of view, is there a “negative” outcome that could emerge in this kind of program? How can the helper know if their message is truly inspiring encouragement?
AM: It is important for people to know when the advice they are getting is coming from a professional and when it is not. That way, they can judge how strongly they should take the advice.
It is certainly possible for a helper to give bad advice. In apps like the one in this article, it is useful if people get advice from several sources, so that they are able to look across what several people think. That can help people from taking a particular person’s bad advice.
Sharing experiences can have a powerful impact on the individuals that need help, but can the helper also change their own views as they listen to other people’s problems? How can these events affect the human brain?
AM: The biggest effect in these studies wasn’t so much on sharing as on helping others. That is, when people help others to find a new way of thinking about a problem, they also help themselves to develop the same habit. People who gave advice to others got better at reappraising their own situations.
That means that helping other people is a great form therapy. It helps people to practice how they will deal with their own anxiety and fear in the future.
- To end the interview, a personal question: what led you to research and write about the theme of your article?
AM: I enjoy introducing new studies to a broad audience of people who do not typically get to read the articles that appear in scientific journals. I want everyone to be able to benefit from the latest research. So, when new journals arrive, I look for articles that I think people would enjoy hearing about. As soon as I saw this paper, I knew I had to write about it.
Bottom line: try to help people more often. Even if they’re not a close, known friend or part of your family. Chances are you’re going to grow as a human being, treat your brain right and still be the advice giver to someone who really needs it!
Art Markman is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, at Austin. He got his Sc.B. in Cognitive Science from Brown and his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois. He has published over 150 scholarly works on topics in higher-level thinking including the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning, categorization, decision making, and creativity. Art serves as the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas. He spent 9 years as executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and currently serves as a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology. Art is also co-host of the radio show and podcast Two Guys on Your Head produced by KUT Radio in Austin. Author of Ulterior Motives – Read here.