The Perks of Being Helpful to Others – An Interview with Art Markman

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.

14 Comments

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  1. This is such an encouraging article!

    First, it encourages us to communicate. Whatever we are feeling, it’s best to communicate with ourselves (put labels to what we are feeling) and then discuss them with others (to share the happiness or to find a solution to a problem or maybe just to have an attentive ear to your rants). Communication helps us to validate our feelings.

    Second, it encourages us to help others as it is one way to help ourselves. As this article points out, when we give advice to others, it helps to frame our minds and be more ready the next time we face a problem. It’s like brain training. The more advice we give to others, the more experienced we become to giving advice to our own selves.

    Lastly and most importantly, it encourages us to be good people. We can be good just by starting a really good conversation (or sometimes even just by listening) and by offering even the littlest of help to someone in need.

    • Hi Ysa! Thank you so much for this. I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I loved talking and writing about it.

      It certainly gives us at least a different spectrum of looking at difficulties and rough paths we might encounter in life. This absolutely encourages me to be a better person for others, and as a reward I “train my brain”, as you said, to advice myself when things get hard.

      Thanks again and I hope you keep on reading! 🙂

  2. I really love the message behind this article! It really acknowledges the need for initiative and for just talking. These days, technology has taken away a lot of the need to say hello to others through its addictive and immersive nature. Buses no longer are filled with chatter, they are only filled with the tapping of fingers on screens. We ignore everything else in favor for our little screens. Unfortunately in doing so we forget and look over when others need help. We’re losing that connection with others and essentially ourselves.

    (This article was really well written! The questions were engaging and thought provoking.)

    • Hi Natalie! Thanks so much for the compliment and I appreciate you enjoyed the article too.

      You said something real here. Being addicted to social media and smartphones can turn our heads down, literally, and make us ignore the bigger picture which is being social, period.

      I try to see the best out of it, though. People like you and me, in different parts of the world, can unite and help each other, or at least share the same knowledge. This is something wonderful and very powerful if used with a good heart. I hope you keep on reading and wish you the best! 🙂

  3. I found Ph.D. Art Markman’s study of emphasizing the importance of empathy, fascinating. Maybe even the scientific explanation to why most human beings enjoy helping others just for that priceless rewarding smile at the end of it all. I found many statements to be relatable, one of them being Markman’s answer to question number three; as he explained that with strangers there is little danger of fear upon negative judgement about you. From personal experience, speaking with a stranger one feels a safe net structure from gossip because they don’t know anyone in your life and because you’re speaking to stranger who would never in your normal life bump into you on the street let alone see you in your daily life. Another relatable statement, was explained in question four, where Markman’s said that part of being the helper was being able to empathize the feelings of the person, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I gained knowledge from this article one of the factors being the answer to question five, as he explained how to deal with advice from non-professional friends, I receive this part of the text as good advice from a professional, so that next time when a friend is in need of help from someone they trust, I as a helper inform them that I am different person with a different perspective and that it’d be best if they confided with several other people they trust so they can closely evaluate their next move. Overall I loved this interview because as the interview closes up, Markman states that he enjoyed introducing this article he felt was a ‘must do’ so that the everyone could benefit off of it; it makes me appreciate the fact that he has empathy to help others so that we be may be informed with knowledge so that we may be able to give and receive better problem solving skills in the future.

    • Joanna, thanks for this lovely comment! I completely agree. His study is even more proved when he shows he’s also a part of this empathy network, since he wanted to pass this important information along as soon as the benefit of it was perceived.

      It certainly helps us to feel the importance of being good to our friends or even complete strangers. No bad can come from that. 😉

  4. I found it very interesting that opening up to a stranger can be easier than open up to somebody you know. I never really thought about this before because at, first glance, it seems a little counterproductive. But it actually makes a lot of sense.
    It is hard for me sometimes to give people advice that I don’t know that well (or don’t know at all) but after reading this, I want to work on that!

  5. I love everything about this article. The subject, the questions, the simple way in which it’s laid out – all of it is wonderful! The topic of helping others and how it can help you has always interested me, partly because at first it doesn’t make sense and partly because it has always worked for me. Sharing your own problems or taking on others’ helps to relieve the stress or anxiety or depression you’re feeling and makes the complicated issue you’re dealing with somehow smaller. It’s something I’ve seen, and I think it’s something my friends could use. My only problem with that is they don’t see the point.
    I have a few friends in particular who struggle with anxiety, depression, and feel negatively stressed all the time, but when I bring up this topic, they instantly dismiss it. They say that there isn’t a point to sharing their problems because it won’t help and they don’t even try. Do you have any advice for helping people try this out? Even if it’s just writing their problems down? I can’t seem to convince my friends to just start.

    • Hi Alyssa! Thanks for sharing this issue with me. Possibly I can be of some help.

      Friends have a superficial bond before it gets deeper and deeper, so my emotional intelligence tells me that sharing our most personal and dark thoughts is a difficult task, even if we know it’s important not to keep everything inside. Of course, what I’m about to suggest is a personal and absolutely non-professional advice, let that be clear and you’ll be the judge if it’s useful or not.

      Okay, so, if it was me who can’t share easily, I’d be comfortable if a friend said it, maybe, like a casual fun fact of how talking or externalizing is good for you? It can get them to open up if it’s not that I NEED TO HELP YOU vibe, you know what I mean? Make them feel safe about discussing anything with you, even if it doesn’t matter – or even if it’s just a regular conversation. Maybe if you just plant the idea on their heads, they think about it when they get home and start doing something about it. What do you think? 😉

      • Ok, so mention it, but don’t make it a very big deal right then. Let them decide for themselves, don’t force it on them? Thanks! I’ll give that a try!

  6. This article seriously speaks to me. Since I was younger I always enjoyed helping people and no matter what it always made me feel better I always wondered why do I like to do that many people always said it was to distract myself from my own life but it always brings me joy to help people whether it was a stranger or a close friend or even my family members. This made things clearer for me and recently because people convinced me it was because I didn’t want to focus on my own life I knew it actually always helped me make decisions and see things from a different view because I always liked to keep a open mind. I honestly loved this article and how it honestly does continue to encourage me that what I’m doing isn’t wrong.

  7. As I was reading this automatically I linked it to an article Michael Gazzaniga wrote titled, “Toward a Universal Ethics.” In the article he attempts to answer if ethical behavior hardwired in us. Empathy is a key element that we as human may have. It helps us understand one another, create connections, enhance trust, and overall keep us united. Gazzaniga states, “Evolution is saving the group, not just the person, because it would seem that saving the group saves the person.” Empathy is an emotion most of us possess, the only obstacle that may block its essential power is ourselves. We need to practice using it with our family, friends, co-workers, etc. That is the first step to understanding one another perspective and emotions.

  8. This is an interesting and very agreeable viewpoint on helping people. From the article Art Markman was discussing, I feel that their approach was very well thought out; that being with how important the ability of knowing who/where advice is coming from really is. Knowing when advice isn’t coming from a professional, could give the listener better knowledge on determining if they should take the advice from someone. However, that wasn’t the only interesting thing about this article. Learning about how helping others can help you as well was also an eye opener to me. From my take on the article I feel that it’s seen that way because when one helps another, it also provides them with the ability to expand their capacity to see from multiple perspectives. However a question that comes to mind though is why some people who give advice on a particular topic, won’t always then take their own advice on it as well.
    I am really fond of the ending statement, “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.” I feel this supports the overall message of this article.
    I’m glad that I had read this article; it was well done with the questions asked and the knowledge it gave was very worth the read!

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