Research continues to show that we are capable of “training” our brain towards greater compassion and empathy. This Wall Street Journal report by Elizabeth Bernstein describes some findings that show ways to develop greater self-compassion and happiness in the context of everyday life – which always contains ups and downs. “Research shows self-compassionate people cope better with everything from a major relationship breakup to the loss of their car keys.” And, “you can learn self-compassion in real time. You can train your brain to focus on the positive—even if you’re wired to see the glass as half empty…We can’t change our genes or our experiences, but experts say we can change the way we interpret what has happened in the past.” Bernstein’s article follows:
Donna Talarico sat at her computer one morning, stared at the screen and realized she had forgotten—again!—her password. She was having financial difficulties at the time, and was reading self-help books to boost her mood and self-confidence. The books talked about the power of positive affirmation—which gave her an idea: She changed her various passwords to private messages to herself, like “imawe$some1” or “dogoodworktoday.”
“It’s something so simple,” says the 34-year-old marketing manager at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania. “It just reinforces that you’re a good person. You can do a good job at whatever you are trying to talk yourself into.” In times of stress, even people with close social networks can feel utterly alone. We’re often advised to “buck up,” “talk to someone” (who is often paid to listen) or take a pill. Wouldn’t it also make sense to learn ways to comfort and be supportive of ourselves? Think of it as becoming our own best friend, or our own personal coach, ready with the kind of encouragement and tough love that works best for us. After all, who else knows us better than ourselves? If that sounds crazy, bear in mind it sure beats turning to chocolate, alcohol or your Pekingese for support.
Experts say that to feel better you need to treat yourself kindly—this is called “self-compassion”—and focus on the positive, by being optimistic. Research shows self-compassionate people cope better with everything from a major relationship breakup to the loss of their car keys. They don’t compound their misery by beating themselves up over every unfortunate accident or mistake. Car broke down? Sure, it’s a drag, but it doesn’t make you an idiot. “They are treating themselves like a kind friend,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “When bad things happen to a friend, you wouldn’t yell at him.”
In 15 studies conducted over the past seven years, Dr. Leary has found that self-compassionate people are happier. Three of the studies, soon to be published, examine how self-compassion affects people over age 65. The studies found that people who accepted memory lapses, arthritis and other difficulties of getting older, and who treated themselves extra nicely on tough days, reported more positive emotions and were coping better with the aging process. Self-compassion helps people overcome life’s little, and not-so-little, stressors, such as public speaking. In another study, Dr. Leary asked people to stand in front of a videocamera and make up a story starting with the phrase, “Once there was a little bear…” Then he asked them to critique their performance, captured on videotape.
People whom the study had identified as being high in self-compassion admitted they looked silly, recognized the task wasn’t easy and joked about it. People low in self-compassion gave harsh self-criticism. Experts say you can learn self-compassion in real time. You can train your brain to focus on the positive—even if you’re wired to see the glass as half empty. A person’s perspective, or outlook, is influenced by factors including genetic makeup (is he prone to depression?), experiences (what happened to him?) and “cognitive bias” (how does he interpret his experiences?). We can’t change our genes or our experiences, but experts say we can change the way we interpret what has happened in the past.
Everyone has an optimistic and a pessimistic circuit in their brain, says Elaine Fox, visiting research professor at the University of Oxford, England, and director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. Fear, rooted in the amygdala, helps us identify and respond to threats and is at the root of pessimism. Optimism, in contrast, is rooted in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center, which responds to food, sex and other healthy, good things in life. “The most resilient people experience a wide range of emotions, both negative and positive,” says Dr. Fox, author of “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.” To enjoy life and feel good, people need roughly four positive emotions to counteract the effect of one negative emotion, she says. People who experience life as drudgery had two or even one positive emotion for every negative one, Dr. Fox has found.
It’s possible to change your cognitive bias by training the brain to focus more on the positive than on the negative. In the lab, Dr. Fox showed subjects pairs of images, one negative (the aftermath of a bomb blast, say) and one either positive (a cute child) or neutral (an office). Participants were asked to point out, as quickly as possible, a small target that appeared immediately after each positive or neutral image—subliminally requiring them to pay less attention to the negative images, which had no target. Want to try this at home? Write down, in a journal, the positive and negative things that happen to you each day, whether running into an old friend or missing your bus. Try for four positives for each negative. You’ll be training your brain to look for the good even as you acknowledge the bad, Dr. Fox says.
When I asked, I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of ways people said they treat themselves with compassion, care and kindness. Anittah Patrick, a 35-year-old online marketing consultant in Philadelphia, celebrated her emergence from a long depression by making herself a valentine. She covered an old picture frame with lace and corks from special bottles of wine, and drew a big heart inside. Using old computer keys, she spelled out the message “Welc*me Back.” Then she put it on her dressing table, where she sees it every morning. “It’s a nice reminder that I’ll get through whatever challenge I’m facing,” she says. If Kris Wittenberg, a 45-year-old entrepreneur from Vail, Colo., starts to feel bad, she tells herself “Stop,” and jots down something she is grateful for. She writes down at least five things at the end of each day. “You start to see how many negative thoughts you have,” she says.
Kevin Kilpatrick, 55, a college professor and children’s author in San Diego, talks to himself—silently, unless he is in the car—going over everything positive he has accomplished recently. “It helps me to hear it out loud, especially from the voice that’s usually screaming at me to do better, work harder and whatever else it wants to berate me about,” he says. Adam Urbanski, 42, who owns a marketing firm and lives in Irvine, Calif., keeps a binder labeled “My Raving Fans” in his office. Filling it are more than 100 cards and letters from clients and business contacts thanking him for his help. “All it takes is reading a couple of them to realize that I do make a difference,” Mr. Urbanski says.
He has something he calls his “1-800-DE-FUNK line.” It’s not a real number, but a strategy he uses when he is upset. He calls a friend, vents for 60 seconds, then asks her about her problems. “It’s amazing how five minutes of working on someone else’s problems makes my own disappear,” he says. Sometimes, as a reality check, he asks himself, “What Would John Nash Think?” in honor of the mathematician, Nobel laureate and subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Are things really as dire as he thinks? Is he overreacting? “It always turns out that whatever keeps me down isn’t really as bad as I thought,” Mr. Urbanski says.