“Is past suffering associated with hardened hearts or warmed ones?” This was the central question posed by recent research into whether experiencing adversity ultimately makes you more willing and able to help others – or whether the experience of pain closes you off and makes you less able to empathise with others.
The research – carried out at Northeastern University and published in the journal Emotion – found a link between the severity of past adversity (such as loss, illness, violence, relationship breakdown) and increased empathy and a “tendency to feel compassion for others in need”. In other words, the more suffering someone has been through, the more likely they are to reach out and want to help others.
The researchers at Northeastern University carried out two studies among Americans who had suffered previous adversity. The first study measured the compassion and empathy of 224 people, with the option to donate to charity at the end of the survey. The second study was a laboratory experiment with 51 people, who were asked to complete a survey on emotion recognition and another task. The participants were unaware that an actor in the lab pretended to be ill and therefore unable to complete a boring task – giving the participants the option to help the man (as a way of measuring their compassion). People’s compassion levels were measured separately the next day. The results showed that the higher the adversity someone had suffered, the more likely they were to help the ill man.
While the researchers acknowledge that some people suffer “chronic dysfunction” following earlier trauma, this piece of research is the first to find a link between adversity and empathy/compassion. They said: “Individuals who have experienced adversity attest to increased tendencies both to perspective-take and to place value on the welfare of others in need.”
My take on this is that bad things happen to everyone. It’s the process of coming to terms with what has happened, and perhaps developing new qualities as a result of the negative experiences, that can make us more open to empathising with others. This is what is termed as “post-traumatic growth” (Staub and Vollhardt, 2008). It’s when a bad experience festers and is not worked through – sometimes leading to negative patterns of thinking and behaviour – that can harden rather than warm our hearts.