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Rebroadcast: Inside the science of empathetic joy

Friends re-unite with a picnic at Okahu Bay on October 06, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Friends re-unite with a picnic at Okahu Bay on October 06, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This rebroadcast originally aired on June 7, 2022.

Mass grief. Mass outrage. Seemingly everywhere.

But can we also learn to share in each other’s joy?

“When you ask people to report on the empathetic experiences that they’ve had, they resonate with other people’s positive feelings just as much as their negative ones, if not more,” Jamil Zaki says. “And yet, I don’t think they realize how they can apply it in their own lives.”

Today, On Point: The science of empathetic joy and how we can experience more of it.


Amelie, On Point listener.

Eve Ekman, meditation teacher and a contemplative social scientist designing tools to support emotional awareness.

Shelly Gable, professor and chair of psychological brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Principal Investigator of Emotions, Motivation, Behavior and Relationships at the (EMBeR) Lab.

Also Featured

Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University. Director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. (@zakijam)

Transcript: A Listener Shares Her Story Of Sympathetic Joy

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: We put a call out to listeners a few days ago to share stories about empathetic joy with us. And you left us a really beautiful message, and I wanted to share it more broadly with On Point listeners, Amelie. So I’m wondering if you could just start by telling us the story of your friend Gina. When did you first meet?

AMELIE: So we met as kids. We were in junior high together, which is seventh and eighth grade. Became fast friends at school. And I went to a different high school, so we drifted apart a little bit, but loosely stayed in touch and reconnected again in our twenties.

CHAKRABARTI: Reconnected again. Okay. And what brought you together? What allowed for that reconnection?

AMELIE: So I had seen on, I believe it was Facebook or social media, that she had been diagnosed with leukemia. And so, of course, my heart went out to her and I reached out again, I believe, over text.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so then what happened after that?

AMELIE: So she was kind of in and out of treatment eventually for years. And I stuck by her through a lot of those kind of rounds of ups and downs. But also I was dealing with my own unrelated, but related to cancer decisions for myself. And as two people who were quite young and dealing with that sort of thing, it really brought us together.

CHAKRABARTI: So you really were there for each other in the time of, sounds like both your both mutual, greatest need. But she did pass away, you said.

AMELIE: Yep. In the pandemic.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, yeah. So that must’ve been really hard.


CHAKRABARTI: So, you know what’s interesting is that your experience of empathetic joy that led you to call us begins with the story of Gina. But it’s with somebody else and something else that happened to a colleague of yours that made you resonate with with joy. Can you tell us that?

AMELIE: Yeah, exactly. So, at the time I was working in sales, and I was working closely with somebody who was much, much older than myself or Gina, but also was dealing with cancer treatments. And we weren’t very close, personally. Myself and my colleague, but we worked together every day, so we had a kind of a closer professional relationship. And she was very positive, super smart, really good at what she does. And very, very, like I said, very kind of positive about things.

And I just remember one day she walked into the office and looked at me and was like, my cancer markers are down. And I remember just feeling what I describe now as an electric shock, like I remember going like, Yes! Like kind of in the same way that people who just saw their favorite team score a goal or whatever, you know, like I was like, Yes, of course. I was like, No way. Like, This is great!

And just feeling that kind of elation and like truly for her, but also kind of based on the understanding and my own personal knowledge of what that could feel like, kind of at my core.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more, though, about it. Like, it sounds like it was almost not just an emotional feeling, or even a spiritual feeling, but even almost like a physical reaction you had.

AMELIE: Yeah. As I describe it, I’m like, tensing my arms, you know? And I’m like, turning into, like, a tense, excited muscle, you know? And it’s just really electrifying, I think.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you think your ability to experience that joy relates to, you know, not just your own story with cancer, but thinking back to Gina, where we started, like, how do you think all those things are wound together that led you to experience that electric moment of happiness for someone else?

AMELIE: Yeah. I mean, I am of the philosophy that I don’t have to experience something exactly in order to feel it for somebody else. I think we kind of borrow from our experiences, and our feelings to feel something like empathetic joy. And so with cancer, you know, anyone who’s had any experience with, you know, a loved one or personally or anything, with that treatment, you know, it’s really a lot of waiting. It’s usually not like a one and done sort of deal.

And so waiting can feel quite gloomy and it can feel like positive news is kind of an impossibility, even though we know statistically it can be quite positive. And, you know, treatment can work, To kind of see that right in front of me in my colleague, it let me say, Oh, it can work. And this is really meaningful not just for me, and not just for my friend, but for anybody who feels that what they’re going through is not insurmountable, but it can happen, you know, like we can get through. And here was the evidence right in front of me.

CHAKRABARTI: How are you doing now?

AMELIE: I’m doing well. Yeah. I don’t work for the same company anymore. I work at a different one. And, you know, I’m super happy and really grateful for a lot of the different lessons that I’ve learned from my friend.

CHAKRABARTI: And do you think that now, because of this experience, that maybe … you’ll be seeking out more moments to experience that kind of, like, really profound, empathetic joy?

AMELIE: Yeah, definitely. I think one of the things I kind of learned from the experience is … I feel that I can recognize potential for that feeling in other people. So, you know, different colleagues perhaps, or friends are struggling with something. I really see it and understand the weight of it and understand how important it is to, you know, for them to know that these challenges are surmountable. And yeah, I feel that I can recognize those things to a much greater degree than I could before.

Related Reading

Greater Good Magazine: “What Is Sympathetic Joy and How Can You Feel More of It?” — “Our cats love my partner. When presented with two laps, the cats will choose hers, almost every time. In the morning, our kitten Leif nurses on her shoulder, his little paws making biscuits.”

The Atlantic: “‘Self-Care’ Isn’t the Fix for Late-Pandemic Malaise” — “If years could be assigned a dominant feeling (1929: despair; 2008: hope), 2021’s might be exhaustion. As the coronavirus pandemic rumbles through its 20th month, many of us feel like we are running a race we didn’t sign up for, and it’s getting longer every mile we run.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.