One of the least-praised pleasures in life — and yet one that is probably most likely to bring lasting happiness — is the ability to be happy for others. When we think about empathy, we tend to think of feeling other people’s pain — but feeling other people’s joy gets short shrift That must change if we want to have a more empathetic society.
While working on our forthcoming book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered (my co-author is leading child trauma expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD), one of the most common questions I’ve gotten is, “What can parents do to raise more empathetic children?”
And, as I talked about sharing joy with a friend last week, I thought again about just how important the pleasurable part of empathy is in parenting. Sharing pleasure is actually one of our earliest experiences: consider the way a baby’s smile lights up a room and all the silly things adults will do to elicit these little expressions of happiness and connection. Videos of laughing babies delight us for the same reason. [I dare you to resist the laughing quads!]
Cuteness is nature’s way of getting us through the most difficult and demanding parts of parenting: if babies weren’t so darn cute, few people would be able to take the dirty diapers and other drudgery of caring for them. But their smiles and laughs are overwhelmingly infectious.
It’s this same early dance between parent and child that instills empathy in the first place. We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy. However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning. The ‘words” and “grammar” of empathy are taught first via early nurturing experiences.
Without responsive parenting, though, babies don’t learn to connect people with pleasure. If your smiles aren’t returned with joy, it’s as though you are being asked to learn to speak without anyone ever talking to you. The brain expects certain experiences to guide its development — if these don’t occur at the right time, the capacity to learn them can be reduced or even lost.
So, most of us come into the world and receive parenting that implicitly teaches us that joy is shared. Babies don’t just smile spontaneously — they also smile radiantly back when people smile at them. The back and forth of these smiles, the connection, disconnection, reconnection and its rhythm teaches us that your happiness is mine, too.
Over time, unfortunately, we learn that we are separate beings and sometimes come to see other people’s happiness as a threat or a sign that we’ve lost a competition, rather than something we can share.
This, of course, is natural, too: we are also normally born with an acute sense of fairness and justice that makes us sensitive to say, whether our older brother’s toys are nicer than ours. While cries of “that’s not fair” are the bane of many parents’ existence, they’re not just selfish. They’re part of a social sense that we should
receive equal treatment.
How, then, can we help kids to develop both their sense of justice and the ability to share joy?
One key is making the implicit explicit. When we see kids smiling in response to others, point out how seeing someone else smile made them feel good; when we see that they enjoy our reaction to their artwork and gifts, praise them for being happy for us. Saying that “it’s better to give than receive,” may ring hollow — pointing out when children are actually experiencing the feeling of taking joy in giving is much more powerful.
Allowing children to own this ability and recognize it in themselves will also encourage it — helping them to define themselves as the kind of people who are happy for other people will make them feel like good people, too. Encouraging such an identity will reinforce other positive behaviors as well. Changing behavior to suit an identity you prefer is actually one of the easiest ways to make changes.
Further, rather than calling kids selfish or self-interested when they protest about someone else getting what seems like something better, reframe this as a concern for justice and ask them to look out for when what seems unfair is unfair in their own favor, too. Children who see themselves as being “bad” or “selfish” will unfortunately take on that identity, too — if they don’t recognize their own prosocial behavior, they can’t enhance it and may embrace a very negative view of their own desires and drives.
Sadly, as a society, for centuries we have embraced a view of human nature that is selfish and competitive — with evolution being described as a contest in which the most ruthless are always likely to be the winners. In fact, research is now showing that, at least in humans, kindness is also a critical part of fitness.
For one, both men and women typically describe kindness as one of the top three characteristics they seek in a mate (sense of humor and intelligence are the other top two picks; gender differences in valuing attractiveness and resources come lower on the list).
Second, the ability to nurture and connect is critical for the survival of human children: in hunter/gatherer societies, the presence of older siblings and grandmothers can be even more important to child survival than the presence of fathers according to Sarah Hrdy’s research, suggesting that cooperation in childrearing made genetic survival more likely — not competition.
This means that human nature isn’t the selfish, sociopathic murk we’ve been told it is. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. To create a more empathetic world, we need to own this as adults as we teach it to our kids.
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- The Little Hearts Project (digitalphilanthropy.blogspot.com)
- Personal Health: Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps (nytimes.com)
Having an Honors degree in Human Movement Studies and working in gyms in a former life while studying for my Clinical Masters degree, I have seen this to be true. Of course it seems self evident, but these researchers have used great science with an excellent and now research-proven written program and workbook. These, along with their recent meta-analytic research review, show just how effective exercise can be in improving mood.
Credit: PhysOrg.com) — Exercise is a magic drug for many people with depression and anxiety disorders, according to researchers who analyzed numerous studies, and it should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.
“Exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health,” says Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The more therapists who are trained in exercise therapy, the better off patients will be.”
The traditional treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy don’t reach everyone who needs them, says Smits, an associate professor of psychology.
“Exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access, or who don’t want to because of the perceived social stigma associated with these treatments,” he says. “Exercise also can supplement traditional treatments, helping patients become more focused and engaged.”
Smits and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, presented their findings to researchers and mental health care providers March 6 at the Anxiety Disorder Association of America’s annual conference in Baltimore.
Their workshop was based on their therapist guide “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders,” with accompanying patient workbook (Oxford University Press, September 2009).
The guide draws on dozens of population-based studies, clinical studies and meta-analytic reviews that demonstrate the efficacy of exercise programs, including the authors’ meta-analysis of exercise interventions for mental health and study on reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise.
“Individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger,” Smits says. “Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors. For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing.”
After patients have passed a health assessment, Smits says, they should work up to the public health dose, which is 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity.
At a time when 40 percent of Americans are sedentary, he says, mental health care providers can serve as their patients’ exercise guides and motivators.
“Rather than emphasize the long-term health benefits of an exercise program — which can be difficult to sustain — we urge providers to focus with their patients on the immediate benefits,” he says. “After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy — and you’ll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise.”
Smits says health care providers who prescribe exercise also must give their patients the tools they need to succeed, such as the daily schedules, problem-solving strategies and goal-setting featured in his guide for therapists.
“Therapists can help their patients take specific, achievable steps,” he says. “This isn’t about working out five times a week for the next year. It’s about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today.”
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Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Press Release
Short-Term Program for Binge Eaters Using “Overcoming Binge Eating” by Dr. Christopher Fairburn Has Long-Term Benefits
PORTLAND, Ore. — A new study finds that a self-guided, 12-week program helps binge eaters stop binging for up to a year and the program can also save money for those who participate. Recurrent binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the country, affecting more than three percent of the population, or nine million people, yet few treatment options are available.
But a first-of-a-kind study conducted by researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Wesleyan University and Rutgers University found that more than 63 percent of participants had stopped binging at the end of the program — compared to just over 28 percent of those who did not participate. The program lasted only 12 weeks, but most of the participants were still binge free a year later. A second study, also published in the April issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that program participants saved money because they spent less on things like dietary supplements and weight loss programs.
“It is unusual to find a program like this that works well, and also saves the patient money. It’s a win-win for everyone,” said study author Frances Lynch, PhD, MSPH, a health economist at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. “This type of program is something that all health care systems should consider implementing.”
“People who binge eat more than other people do during a short period of time and they lose control of their eating during these episodes. Binge eating is often accompanied by depression, shame, weight gain, loss of self-esteem and it costs the health care system millions of extra dollars,” said the study’s principal investigator Ruth H. Striegel-Moore, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University. “Our studies show that recurrent binge eating can be successfully treated with a brief, easily administered program, and that’s great news for patients and their providers.”
Binge eating has received a lot of media attention recently because the American Psychiatric Association is recommending that it be considered a separate, distinct eating disorder like bulimia and anorexia. This new diagnosis can be expected to focus more attention on binge eating and how best to treat it, according to the researchers. It also could influence the number of people diagnosed and how insurers will cover treatment.
This randomized controlled trial, conducted in 2004–2005, involved 123 members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan in Oregon and southwest Washington. More than 90 percent of them were women, and the average age was 37. To be included in the study, participants had to have at least one binge eating episode a week during the previous three months with no gaps of two or more weeks between episodes.
Half of the participants were enrolled in the intervention and asked to read the book “Overcoming Binge Eating” by Dr. Christopher Fairburn, a professor of psychiatry and expert on eating disorders. The book details scientific information about binge eating and then outlines a six-step self-help program using self-monitoring, self-control and problem-solving strategies. Participants in the study attended eight therapy sessions over the course of 12 weeks in which counselors explained the rationale for cognitive behavioral therapy and helped participants apply the strategies in the book. The first session lasted one hour, and subsequent sessions were 20–25 minutes. The average cost of the intervention was $167 per patient.
All participants were mailed fliers detailing the health plan’s offerings for healthy living and eating and encouraged to contact their primary care physician to learn about more services.
By the end of the 12-week program 63.5 percent of participants had stopped binging, compared to 28.3 percent of those who did not participate. Six months later, 74.5 percent of program participants abstained from binging, compared to 44.1 percent in usual care. At one year, 64.2 percent of participants were binge free, compared to 44.6 percent of those in usual care.
Everyone in the trial was asked to provide extensive information about their binge eating episodes, how often they missed work or were less productive at work, and the amount they spent on health care, weight-loss programs and weight loss supplements. Researchers also examined expenditures on medications, doctor visits, and other health-related services.
The researchers then compared these costs between the two groups and found that average total costs were $447 less in the intervention group. This included an average savings of $149 for the participants, who spent less on weight loss programs, over-the-counter medications and supplements. Total costs for the intervention group were $3,670 per person per year, and costs for the control group were $4,098.
“While program results are promising, we highly encourage anyone who has problems with binge eating to consult with their doctors to make sure this program is right for them,” said study co-author Lynn DeBar, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.
Study authors include: Lynn DeBar, John F. Dickerson, Frances Lynch and Nancy Perrin from the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon; Ruth H. Striegel-Moore and Francine Rosselli from Wesleyan University; G. Terence Wilson from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; and Helena C. Kraemer from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
As today is World Autism Awareness Day, I thought I’d highlight A new book by Australian author and mum Sally Thibault, whose son David, now 24 and studying at University, has Asperger’s Syndrome. Below is an interview with Sally and the story of “David’s Gift”
Credit : davidsgift.com.au: A new book called David’s Gift by Australian author Sally Thibault is a real-life story about her long struggle to cope with son David’s Asperger’s Syndrome – an autistic spectrum disorder. The book was released in mid March 2010 to help other parents facing challenging behaviours with children.
The message of the book is for everyone – that it’s not what happens to you in life that’s important, but how you handle it that matters.
Sally was a pioneering parent dealing with autistic spectrum disorder when it was unknown and first being diagnosed in Australia about 12 years ago. Now this complex neurological disorder is the most common developmental disorder in Australia. One in every 166 children in Australia has autism and that number has increased to one in every 91 children in the USA. Three out of every four are boys.Interview with Sally Thibault ABC Queensland 1st April 2010 Download
Already being touted as a must read for all parents, teachers and health care professionals, David’s Gift helps others understand the pain and emotions parents deal with as they navigate the challenges of having a child with ASD.
Thibault’s story is inspirational and offers hope to people from all walks of life, especially those with disabilities. The book reveals useful information about Asperger’s Syndrome and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), and gives parents real, tangible tools to assist them to come to terms with the diagnosis and create strategies to ensure their child grows to be a strong, self-actualised and confident young adult.
“When Asperger’s Syndrome first came into our lives it presented us with a challenge that, at the time, seemed sad, unfair and overwhelming. It is only now I can see that it was in fact an incredible gift,” said Mrs Thibault.
“As parents, we had to become the people we wanted David to be. What we learned about ourselves and who we became as people was David’s gift to us.”
“The book transcends the issue of autism and can be transferred to anyone’s life situation. The story has the potential to transform how people view the challenges they face, by helping readers see how those challenges are a gift offering them opportunity to grow and have a better life.”
Sally Thibault is a ‘wise mother’ of three children aged 24, 22 and 16, who has lived with autistic spectrum disorder for 24 years. She hopes her honest account of parenting a child with Asperger’s Syndrome will help other parents learn through her experiences.
When her eldest son David was a toddler, Sally knew he was different from other children. After searching for answers for many years, it wasn’t until David was 12 years old that he was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder, in 1997.
“Back then, there wasn’t nearly as much information about Asperger’s as there is today, but judgements still haven’t changed in 12 years,” said Mrs Thibault. “One of the greatest challenges for children with ASD and their families is coping with a world that doesn’t accept difference very well.
As Barack Obama said: “My advice is to cultivate a sense of empathy – to put yourself in other people’s shoes – to see the world from their eyes. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”
Asperger’s Syndrome is the mildest and highest function end of the autistic spectrum. People with Asperger’s find it difficult to understand social skills, often misunderstand the use of language and can be considered ‘obsessive’, focussing on one particular area of interest. People diagnosed with Asperger’s are generally intelligent, intense and self-focussed individuals who usually find success in a career that requires enormous amounts of attention to detail.
Steven Spielberg was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult. Today, David is following a similar career path and studying to be a digital video editor, which is perfect for his personality type.
Bill Gates is suspected to have Asperger’s Syndrome, along with Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Ludwig van Beethoven. David’s Gift has parallel themes to the award-winning book and film, The Horse Boy – a true story about a father’s quest to heal his autistic son by traveling with horses through Mongolia.
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Multitasking: New Study Challenges Previous Cognitive Theory But Shows That Only A Few “Supertaskers” Can Drive And Phone
A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.
These individuals – described by the researchers as “supertaskers” – constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.
The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone – the study confirms that the vast majority cannot – but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers’ extraordinary performance.
“According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist,” says Watson. “Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row.”
The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas—braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.
As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.
For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.
However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.
The results are in line with Strayer’s prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under “dual-task conditions” – namely talking on a cell phone while driving – and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.
Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals’ performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.
“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” says Strayer. “Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned.”
Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.
The current value society puts on multitasking is relatively new, note the authors. As technology expands throughout our environment and daily lives, it may be that everyone – perhaps even supertaskers – eventually will reach the limits of their ability to divide attention across several tasks.
“As technology spreads, it will be very useful to better understand the brain’s processing capabilities, and perhaps to isolate potential markers that predict extraordinary ability, especially for high-performance professions,” Watson concludes.
Information from University of Utah
Jodi Picoult is the author of a number of topical novels including “My Sister’s Keeper” and the recently released “House Rules“, a murder-mystery in which the main character is Jacob, a young man with Aperger’s Syndrome. I have just finished reading this novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. Picoult’s understanding of ASD is extensive and well researched, although Jacob’s character probably represents a conglomerate of austistic features in one character. I wondered where she might have drawn her inspiration for the book’s protagonist. As the podcast below reveals, she has some personal experience. Thought it was interesting. Have a watch
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Here’s a review of the book if you’re interested:
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- Picoult keys on a teen with Asperger’s (boston.com)
- Jodi Picoult’s ‘House Rules’: a novel about a family ruled by Asperger’s syndrome (seattletimes.nwsource.com)