If you think about the last time you shared exciting news with someone you loved, you might remember how his/her enthusiastic response elevated your mood and made you feel even happier. Or perhaps you received a lukewarm response that deflated you and made it difficult to stay happy. In recalling this experience, you may intuitively understand how important it is to connect with others and feel that they share your emotional experiences. Over the past decade, the explosive growth of Facebook (currently tallying to 1 billion users) confirms this intuition and demonstrates how we seek out opportunities – both as communicators and receivers – to reinforce our emotional experiences by sharing them with others. Our research focuses on understanding this core human experience, examining how people share the emotions of others (i.e., empathy) and respond when others empathize with them (i.e., feeling understood).
Although neuroscientists have investigated the neural basis of empathy, the measures they employ typically assess empathy for others’ negative emotional states (e.g., pain). Our research extends this work by systematically examining empathy for positive emotions (i.e., positive empathy). Drawing on methodologies from social psychology and neuroscience, we have examined whether the construct of positive empathy dissociates from highly related constructs – such as negative empathy and personal reward, as well as examining how positive empathy uniquely contributes to personal and social well-being. Our research also examines how positive empathy shapes social network structure and how mood disorders blunt emotional responses to others' positive experiences. We are also investigating if interventions that boost positive empathy can increase happiness and social connection. Overall, the lab's research aims to broaden our understanding of empathy and demonstrate its clear relationship to enhanced well-being and positive social relationships.