Can Empathy for Birds Make Us Happier? Ten Breakthroughs in the Science of a Meaningful Life

Last year, scientists found that gratitude makes us financially smarter, mindfulness reduces racism, a little sadness makes for healthier people, and compassion for birds could help tackle climate change.

This article originally appeared at Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

It’s time once again for our favorite year-end ritual here at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: Our annual list of the top scientific insights produced by the study of happiness, altruism, mindfulness, gratitude—what we call “the science of a meaningful life.”

We found that this year, the science of a meaningful life yielded many new insights about the relationship between our inner and outer lives. Cultivating mindfulness can make us more aware of knee-jerk prejudice against people who are different from us; believing that empathy is a skill helps overcome barriers to taking another person’s perspective; concern for others, even for animals, can move people to action for the greater good more quickly than focusing on ourselves.

But this year we also learned more about how to cultivate pro-social skills like gratitude—and we discovered how those skills can yield far-reaching benefits to our mental and physical well-being, and even to our pocketbooks.

With input from our staff, faculty, and some of the leading outside experts in our field, here are the 10 findings from 2014 that we anticipate will have an impact on both scientific research and on public debate for years to come.

1. Mindfulness can reduce racial prejudice—and possibly its effects on victims.

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Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding.

Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.

Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.

As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.

2. Gratitude makes us smarter in how we spend money.

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For years, Greater Good has been reporting on the social, psychological, and physical benefits of gratitude. This year, research suggested that there might be profound economic benefits to a grateful mindset as well—which might pay emotional dividends down the line.

The results suggest that gratitude … strengthens self-control and the ability to delay gratification.

In one study, published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants how much money they’d be willing to forgo in the present in order to receive a greater sum in the future—a measure of their self-control and financial patience. People prompted to feel grateful were willing to pass up significantly more cash than were people not feeling grateful, even if those less-grateful people were feeling other positive emotions. For instance, happy people were willing to sacrifice $100 in the future (one year later) in order to receive $18 in the present, but grateful people preferred to receive the larger, future payment; they only gave up that $100 when the amount offered to them right away reached $30.

The results suggest that gratitude reduces “excessive economic impatience” and strengthens self-control and the ability to delay gratification, according to the authors. This finding challenges the long-held notion that we must rein in our emotions in order to make smarter spending decisions; instead, it seems that consciously counting our blessings can serve our long-term economic interests.

Another study published this year, in Personality and Individual Differences, suggests that gratitude can guide us toward better decisions about what we actually choose to spend our money on. Participants who were more materialistic—meaning that they place a lot of importance on acquiring material possessions—reported lower feelings of gratitude and lower satisfaction with life. In fact, the researchers determined that materialists feel less satisfied with their lives mainly because they experience less gratitude. Their findings help to explain why, according to much previous research, materialistic people are less happy.

Prior research has also found that less happy people make more materialistic purchases, creating a vicious cycle. But the authors of this new study argue that gratitude can help break this cycle. Based on their results, they suggest that boosting one’s level of gratitude might reduce materialism and its negative effects on happiness.

So gratitude might not only encourage financial decisions that are better for our long-term economic health but better for our long-term emotional health as well.

3. It’s possible to teach gratitude to young children, with lasting effects.

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One of parents’ biggest fears is that their child will become an entitled brat; one of their biggest questions is what they can do to prevent that.

The curriculum encourages kids to think about … kindness as a “gift.”

Instead of just lecturing about the importance of gratitude, the curriculum encourages kids to think about something nice that another person did for them, and to see that kindness as a “gift.” Through the curriculum, the students reflect on the value of the gift, the cost incurred by the person who gave it, and the kind intentions that motivated the gift.

The curriculum was taught to 8-11-year-olds for half an hour every day for a week—and the kids started to show increases in gratitude just two days after the curriculum ended. When Froh and Bono offered the curriculum once a week or five weeks, they found that it increased gratitude and other positive emotions for at least five months.

Dozens of previous studies—many of which we have covered on Greater Good—have suggested that gratitude can combat feelings of entitlement and foster happiness. But only a small handful of these studies have examined the effects of gratitude on children, and the kids in Froh and Bono’s study were the youngest ever involved in a study of a gratitude program.

Their results offer hope that it’s actually possible to nurture lasting gratitude—and happiness—in children from the time they’re young. And their curriculum provides parents and teachers with concrete guidelines for achieving that goal.

4. Having more variety in our emotions—positive or negative—can make us happier and healthier.

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Is the route to happiness simply to feel more positive emotion and less negative emotion? Our top insights from 2013 cast some doubt on that view, and an even stronger rebuttal emerged this year in a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

People high in emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than people high in positive emotion alone.

Researchers from four different countries and six different institutions—including Yale University and Harvard Business School—measured participants’ positive emotions (like amusement, awe, and gratitude) and negative ones (like anger, anxiety, and sadness). They not only looked at the level of these emotions but also their variety and abundance—what the researchers call “emodiversity.”

Their first study surveyed over 35,000 French speakers and found that emodiversity is related to less depression. This was the case for all types of emodiversity: positive (experiencing many different positive emotions), negative (many different negative emotions), and general (a mix of both positive and negative emotions). In fact, people high in emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than people high in positive emotion alone.

With almost 1,300 Belgian participants, the second study linked emodiversity to less medication use, lower government health care costs, and fewer doctor visits and days spent in the hospital. It was also related to better diet, exercise, and smoking habits. Surprisingly, the effect of emodiversity on physical health was about as strong as the effects of positive or negative emotion alone.

The message? Emotional monotony is a drag, so we may be better off mentally and physically if we seek out and embrace a variety of emotional experiences—even the negative ones.

5. Natural selection favors happy people, which is why there are so many of them.

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If you subscribe to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ view of life as “nasty, brutish, and short”—as many people do—you’d naturally expect humans to live a pretty miserable existence. But many studies from around the world have suggested that, on average, humans’ default emotional state is to be pretty happy, regardless of their life circumstances—a phenomenon researchers call “positive mood offset.”

Many of the chief benefits of happiness … increase a person’s chances of passing his or her genes to the next generation.

This year, a massive review of the research on happiness set out to explore “Why People Are in a Generally Good Mood”; the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, was led by Ed Diener, a pioneer in the science of happiness.

Given the benefits they find to be strongly associated with happiness, the researchers conclude that the ubiquity of happiness is a product of human evolution. Why? Because many of the chief benefits of happiness—including better health, longer lives, greater fertility, higher income, and more sociability—increase a person’s chances of passing his or her genes to the next generation.

“People are happy most of the time because they are descended from ancestors who were happier and engaged in fitness-maximizing behavior more frequently than their neighbors who were less happy,” they write.

In other words, natural selection favors happy people, leaving us with more of them today.

Of course, though based on an especially comprehensive review of happiness research, Diener and his colleagues stress that this is just a hypothesis—albeit one worth subjecting to future study. “Although our opposable thumbs, big brains, and upright posture have all received in-depth attention and study as reasons for human [evolutionary] success,” they write, “it is time to consider how positive mood offset might have also contributed.”

6. Activities from positive psychology don’t just make happy people happier—they can also help alleviate suffering.

This idea that happiness might arise from natural selection suggests that, perhaps, you’re either born happy or you’re not. But research on positive psychology activities—like keeping a gratitude journal or regular meditation—has offered compelling evidence that it’s possible to cultivate happiness over time. What’s more, during the past year, we saw many different papers suggest that positive activities aren’t just for positive people, and that negative conditions aren’t just alleviated by targeting negative influences. Instead, nurturing positive skills can help pull people out of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

Participants’ ability to forgive themselves and others seemed closely associated with the will to keep on living.

The key, it seems, lies in the way these skills enhance relationships. One study found that 11 people who had gone through an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course became less stressed about relationships with friends, family, and coworkers—which, in turn, helped prevent future episodes of depression.

A different study in the July issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at the impact of another positive behavior, forgiveness, on reducing suicidal thoughts in impoverished, rural people. The researchers found that participants’ ability to forgive themselves and others seemed closely associated with the will to keep on living. They also found that forgiveness seemed to reduce participants’ feelings of being a burden to others, and people who were able to forgive themselves for being a burden to others were much less suicidal. Yet another study found that keeping a journal about gratitude or kindness helped people who were on waiting lists to receive psychological counseling.

The upshot of this research is that there are likely far-reaching applications of the skills targeted by positive psychology. As researchers move forward in understanding how we can foster human strengths and use them to save lives, clinicians and teachers can put these insights to use in real-world settings.

7. People with a “growth mindset” are more likely to overcome barriers to empathy.

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Just as many people believe that you’re either happy or you’re not, so many believe that you’re either empathic or you’re not. The trouble with this “fixed mindset” about empathy is that the ability to sense the feelings or take the perspective of others is very sensitive to situational forces, such as when we are stressed or overwhelmed by other people’s needs. Some research is even showing that stressed-out, hyper-connected Americans are becoming less and less empathic.

According to a recent paper published in the Journal of Social Psychology, our beliefs about empathy are critical to fostering it. Stanford University researchers recruited 75 participants, asking them to pick one of these two statements as being true: “In general, people cannot change how empathic a person they are” or “In general, people can change how empathic a person they are.” Across five studies, they tested their hypothesis in situations where empathy is both challenging and “crucial to positive social outcomes,” such as pitting the participant against someone with different political views.

Anyone can cultivate empathic skills—even psychopaths.

In the final study, researchers told half of the participants that they had failed a diagnostic test of emotional understanding and that the other half succeeded. Then they gave participants a chance to go through exercises that might improve their empathy—theorizing that “participants induced to have a malleable, as opposed to fixed, theory of empathy would be more likely to capitalize on this opportunity to develop their empathic abilities.”

This turned out to be true. People primed to see empathy as a skill—in other words, people given a “growth mindset” about empathy, seeing it as something one can build through practice—were more likely to “stretch themselves to overcome their limitations.” Across all of their studies, they found that people who believe empathy can be developed expended greater effort in challenging contexts than did people who believe empathy cannot be developed, suggesting that our beliefs about ourselves are key to expanding empathy on both individual and societal levels.

This insight echoes a trend we highlighted in last year’s list of top scientific insights: Anyone can cultivate empathic skills—even psychopaths. And in fact, another study this year from the United Kingdom extended those findings to narcissists, finding that even they could be coached into taking another person’s perspective.

8. To get people to take action against climate change, talk to them about birds.

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Imagine what might happen in the future if climate change goes unchecked. Are you more likely to take action to prevent that outcome if you feel like it is a threat to humans? Or are you more likely to reduce your carbon footprint if you fear for the safety of other animals, like birds? Well, according to a group of scientists at Cornell University, birds may be the answer.

The researchers surveyed 3,546 people (largely bird-watchers) to evaluate how their willingness to engage in climate-friendly actions might be affected by how the problem of climate change is described to them. Specifically, respondents were presented with these four statements and, after each, asked about their willingness to lessen their carbon footprint:

  1. Climate change is a danger to people.
  2. Climate change is a danger to birds.
  3. If a large number of Americans do something small to reduce their use of fossil fuels, it would have a large impact on our national carbon footprint.
  4. If a large number of Americans do something small to reduce their use of fossil fuels, it would have a large impact on our national carbon footprint—and be of benefit to future generations.

Invoking a threat to birds led to the most significant change of all.

As expected, the findings revealed that the positive framing of the climate problem (numbers 3 and 4) increased people’s willingness to take action. Numerous earlier studies have shown that positive messages—such as those that emphasize the collective impact of carbon-cutting measures—are generally more effective than fear-based messages. But responses to the two fear-based messages (numbers 1 and 2) revealed a surprise: Invoking a threat to humans led to no significant impact on the respondents’ willingness to reduce their carbon footprint—while invoking a threat to birds led to the most significant change of all.

Why would a threat to birds provoke more willingness to act than a threat to humans? One theory suggests that threats to humans cause us to think about death, which activates defenses against the anxiety caused by confronting our own mortality. Researcher Janis Dickson says the findings do point to a potentially important lesson for educators and communicators: Combining a sense of empowerment (by reminding people of our collective impact) with compassion (for non-human others) can help cultivate the psychological resilience needed to overcome denial and inaction.

9. Feelings of well-being might spur extraordinary acts of altruism.

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What would motivate someone to donate a kidney to someone they have never met?

A study published in the journal Psychological Science looked at this act of extreme altruism in all 50 states, cross-referencing donations with data on each state’s levels of “well-being,” which refers to people’s levels of life satisfaction, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior (e.g., exercise, good diet), job satisfaction, and ability to meet their basic needs like food and safety. By analyzing statewide data, the Georgetown University researchers hoped to find large-scale trends that might not be apparent from looking at individual cases.

“Policies that promote well-being may help to generate a virtuous circle…”

Their efforts paid off. Results showed that states with high levels of well-being tended to have higher rates of “altruistic” kidney donation—kidney donation to a stranger. Indeed, the researchers found that even when controlling for key factors such as education, race, age, income, and religiosity, a state’s level of well-being still significantly predicted donation rates. Furthermore, analyses combining states into larger geographical regions confirmed that as well-being increases, so do rates of kidney donation to strangers. And because altruistic kidney donation happens relatively rarely, the researchers were able to rule out the possibility that these altruistic acts caused widespread increases in happiness rather than the other way around.

So while prior research has suggested that performing altruistic acts fosters feelings of happiness, this important study adds a new twist: Feelings of happiness might actually spur extraordinary acts of altruism. This insight has real-world implications. As the researchers write, “Policies that promote well-being may help to generate a virtuous circle, whereby increases in well-being promote altruism that, in turn, increases well-being. Such a cycle holds the promise of creating a ‘sustainable happiness’ with broad benefits for altruists, their beneficiaries, and society at large.”

10. Extreme altruism is motivated by intuition—our compassionate instincts.

September 19 2014: Community Health Volunteers with Ebola prevention kits walking through West Point in Monrovia Liberia. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Development Fund.

While the previous insight relied upon big-picture aggregate data to understand how social context influences altruistic acts, this year the same Georgetown University team that conducted that study went deeper into the individual human mind to understand the psychology of altruism. Past research has identified patterns of brain activity related to extreme anti-social behavior, but this new study tried to locate the neural mechanisms that might support extreme pro-social tendencies.

The gut-level decision overrode any deliberative process.

Researchers Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitz and Abigail A. Marsh used brain imaging technology to map the brains of kidney donors, who make an extraordinary sacrifice for total strangers; they then compared these brain images with those of psychopaths and people who did not show extremes on either side of the pro-social divide. They found that the brains of extraordinary altruists had slightly larger right amygdalae—a brain area associated with a fearful response—and they reacted very strongly to fearful facial expressions—the exact opposite of psychopaths.

How might these different brain structures show up in behavior? Another research team, this one at Yale University, examined the testimony of Carnegie Hero Medal Recipients, who all risked their lives to save others. The researchers found that recipients’ decisions to help were “overwhelmingly dominated by intuition” and “significantly more intuitive than a set of control statements describing deliberative decision-making.” This remained true even when researchers took into account that the medal winners had enough time to think before they acted, suggesting that the gut-level decision overrode any deliberative process.

Taken together, these findings from Yale and Georgetown reveal how extreme, heroic acts of altruism might be motivated by deeply-rooted, even instinctive, psychological processes.

To what degree are these different brain structures—and the instincts that spring from them—shaped by nature or nurture? That’s a question that research will need to tackle in 2015.

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Lisa Bennett
Lauren Klein
Kira M. Newman
Kira M. Newman is managing editor at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, where she also writes and produces content.
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Jill Suttie
Jill Suttie is book review editor of the online magazine Greater Good, published by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and a frequent contributer to the magazine.
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Jeremy Adam Smith
Jeremy Adam Smith is the editor of the online magazine Greater Good, published by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and the author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family.
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Jason Marsh
Bianca Lorenz

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