Have you ever felt bad when helping someone out?
People naturally tend to empathize with others, report C. Daryl Cameron and Barbara Fredrickson in the January issue of the journal Mindfulness. But empathy can go wrong when it leads to distress. We might help out of guilt, or the help might cause resentment, which could lead us to avoid helping people in the future. Or sometimes, absorbing the feelings of someone in trouble may lead us to turn away, if we can’t deal with those feelings of suffering.
There’s another response: compassion, which leads people to try to alleviate distress in others.
As the authors speculate, “Helping should be most common among people who are able to maximize compassion while minimizing distress.” Previous research has found that cultivating mindfulness—the moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings—can lead to greater compassion. But what specific components of mindfulness predict real-world helping behavior? In other words, what skills could we develop that would make us more likely to help each other out?
The study examined two mindful traits—a focus on the present moment (aka, “present-focused attention”) and a non-judgmental acceptance of thoughts and experiences (“non-judgmental acceptance”). Cameron and Fredrickson assessed the mindfulness of 313 adults, asking if, for example, they “pay attention to how my emotions affect my thoughts and behaviors” or often criticize themselves “for having irrational or inappropriate emotions.”
Next, the survey asked if they had recently helped someone out. If they had, participants answered questions about how they felt while helping. Did they feel positive emotions like gratitude, hopefulness, inspiration, or joy? Or did they have negative ones, like irritation, contempt, disgust, distaste, guilt, or nervousness?
In analyzing the answers, the researchers found that 85 percent of participants had engaged in some kind of helping behavior during the previous week, like listening to a friend’s problems, babysitting, giving someone a car ride, donating to charity, or volunteering. In the process, they uncovered some incidental but interesting facts:
• men were marginally less likely than women to report engaging in helping behavior;
• age did not predict helping; and
• participants with higher income were more likely to report helping others.
But the biggest predictor of helping behavior had nothing to do with these demographic traits. In fact, the researchers confirmed their hypothesis: Present-focused attention and non-judgmental acceptance both predicted more helping behavior. This link between mindfulness and helping might be traced to the fact that the mindful participants were more likely to experience emotions like compassion, joy, or elevation while giving help. That could mean that they just felt better when helping others, which could lead them to engage in more helping behavior in general.
But the study revealed a scientifically important nuance: If the participant scored higher in present-focused attention, he or she was more likely to experience positive emotions—but participants high in non-judgmental acceptance experienced fewer negative emotions, like stress, but weren’t necessarily more likely to experience more positive emotions. In other words, acceptance may only clear the way for helping; it’s the present-focus that could actually make the helping an emotionally rewarding experience.
Insights from this study have obvious practical implications for teaching helping behavior to children. This line of research could also help people in helping professions who are at risk for burnout, or people whose mental illnesses make it hard for them to connect with others.
But the study also carries hugely helpful implications for the rest of us, for anyone can feel worn down by helping other people. Isn’t it nice to know there are ways we can help ourselves feel better when we do something nice for someone else?
Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. His most recent piece for Mindful, on Star Wars and mindfulness, appeared in the December 2013 issue. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!