Would you describe yourself as a glass-half-empty kind of person? We can’t all have sunny dispositions. If you’re a bit of a morose sort – less Happy the Dwarf, perhaps, and more Marvin the Depressed Robot – you may believe you don’t have what it takes to support a pal who’s feeling bummed out. After all, a peppier person would do a better job turning someone’s bad mood around and lifting their spirits – wouldn’t they?
Perhaps not, say researchers in Yale University’s Psychology Department. They gathered groups of positive people and sad sacks, and showed them videos of speakers telling very personal stories. The researchers found that the more upbeat listeners weren’t so good at identifying the speakers’ negative emotions, like sadness. Yet since the positive people felt so darn confident about themselves, they were actually convinced they were stellar at picking up these emotions.
So why did their empathy skills fall flat? The perky people (the researchers theorize) were probably so focused on their own soaring moods that they were a tad oblivious to the misery around them. Call it one of the drawbacks of being high on life.
The downcast folks, on the other hand, were more empathetic when it came to negative emotions, and better at noticing them.
That means that when you want a buddy to commiserate with you, you ought to call on Grumpy Gus. At least he’ll feel your pain.
It should be noted that, in the study, positive people were good at picking up on someone’s emotions if they were in a happy state. My theory: It’s fun to be around fun people if you’re feeling fun.
So if you happen to be somewhat of a sad sack, don’t despair. It turns out you may have a lot of empathy to offer a friend who’s feeling down.
You may not be the life of the party, but you could still be someone’s lifeline.