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Is It OK to Feel Good During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

Why it is not just OK, but even desirable, to feel good during the outbreak.

Has the coronavirus outbreak made life more or less stressful for you? I’ve now posed this question to a variety of audiences—from students at a top business school and employees of multinationals to my online students, Facebook followers, and doctors. On average, the outbreak has had a negative effect: close to 65 percent of respondents in the polls report an increase in stress. But there’s a good 15 percent for whom stress levels have actually gone down. (For the remainder—about 20 percent—stress levels have remained more or less the same.)

Here’s a question that the one in six (for whom stress levels have gone down) might ask themselves: Is it OK to feel happy when others are clearly suffering? (I am using the word "happy" interchangeably with "feeling good," e.g., joyful, content, and satisfied.)

The answer to this question is important because the same dilemma applies to many contexts outside of the coronavirus outbreak. Imagine that, just as you are about to consume a sumptuous meal at an expensive restaurant, a malnourished beggar walks by. Or imagine that, as you drive to work in a cushy car, you see commuters huddled uncomfortably on a bus. Is it OK to feel happy in these situations?

This question poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, it seems obviously wrong to feel happy when others are suffering; it seems inhumane, even sadistic. On the other hand, if one can’t feel happy unless everyone else is happy, one is doomed to a life of unhappiness because at any given moment, there’s bound to be someone who is suffering.

My proposed resolution for this dilemma, based on Paul Bloom’s work, calls for making a distinction between empathy and compassion. Most people use these terms interchangeably, but in Bloom’s eyes, they are different. He defines empathy as the propensity to feel another person’s feelings, especially negative ones like hunger, pain, sadness, or stress. In this definition, an empathetic person would feel the hunger of that malnourished beggar. Likewise, she would feel the discomfort of those commuters on the bus.

Compassion, by contrast, is wanting good things (alleviation of suffering, happiness, prosperity, etc.) for others. A compassionate person would want to alleviate the beggar’s hunger and the commuters’ discomfort, but not necessarily feel their pain and suffering, at least not to the extent that an empathetic person would.

Bloom argues that, although most people instinctively believe empathy is a good thing, the experience of empathy often leads to negative outcomes. There are at least three ways in which empathy leads to negative outcomes.

First, it can—somewhat paradoxically—make one less capable of helping others. Imagine that your child is panicking about an upcoming exam. What good will it be if you too panicked? In this situation, you’re better off being compassionate, rather than empathetic. As a compassionate parent, you wouldn’t be paralyzed. Rather, you’d offer the kind of support your child needs to boost his or her confidence.

Second, empathy can make you biased toward in-group vs. out-group members. This is because we generally tend to feel more empathetic toward similar (vs. dissimilar) others. Imagine that a young girl from your neighborhood goes missing. How likely are you to help out? Chances are, you are more likely to help, and help for longer, if the girl were from your own ethnicity than if from a different ethnicity or background. This is because we feel more empathetic toward our own "kind" than we do toward those different from us. And that’s not necessarily a good thing because, as Dr. Seuss expressed it, “a person’s a person no matter how small,” meaning every life is equally valuable. In other words, empathy can derail us from living up to what we recognize as an important value: the value of equality or fairness.

Raj Raghunathan
1 vs. 4 panda bears--as "dots"
Source: Raj Raghunathan

Finally, empathy can make you exhibit something called "scope insensitivity." Imagine that you hear of endangered panda bears in a remote Asian region. You naturally wish to help and are willing to donate money to help rescue them. Now imagine you are told that only one panda bear—represented by the single dot in the picture—needs to be rescued. What is the maximum amount you would be willing to donate? $10? $20? $50? Now, imagine instead that as many as four panda bears—represented by the four dots in the picture—need to be rescued. How much would you now be willing to donate?

Rationally, you should be willing to donate more as the number of endangered panda bears increases, right? That’s indeed what researchers find. In one study, participants were willing to donate, on average, $11.67 to rescue one panda bear, and $22 to rescue four. But this happened only when information about the endangered panda bears was presented in a “dry”—that is, non-empathy-inducing—fashion: as “dots.”

Panda bear
Source: iStockphoto

When information about the bears was presented in an empathy-inducing fashion—specifically, as pictures—participants were willing to pay no more for four pandas ($18.95, on average) than for just one ($19.49)! Why? Because even just one picture elicits a relatively high level of empathy, and the knowledge that a larger number of panda bears are endangered does not move the "empathy needle" any further.

It is because of empathy—and the scope insensitivity it engenders—that we are often willing to donate huge amounts of time, money, or other resources to help out a single identifiable victim whose story stirs us, even as we are willing to ignore the suffering of a much large number of victims who do not evoke the same levels of empathy in us.

Does this mean empathy is always bad? No, not necessarily. When it comes to positive feelings—e.g., sharing the happiness of a colleague who has won an award, or the love that a child feels for a pet—empathy is a good thing. Empathy can also signal to others that you care for them, which is good. However, it can also lead to negative outcomes in the ways discussed above.

In addition, it can—I suspect—lead to burn-out. As Adam Grant notes in his book Give and Take, selfless givers are prone to burning out, becoming incapable of helping others because they don’t have anything left in their "emotional tank." My hunch is that people high in empathy are, similarly, prone to burning out. By contrast, compassionate people—like those Adam Grant calls "otherish givers"—are less prone to burning out. This may be why findings show that happy people are more likely to be altruistic, on average, than unhappy people.

So, returning to the question I started out with—Is it OK to feel happy during the coronavirus outbreak?—my answer is "Yes." Why? Because, although mimicking the pain of those suffering might feel appropriate, it can—as we have seen—lead to paralysis, in-group bias, or scope-insensitivity. It may also lead to burnout in the long run. So, it is OK to feel good, especially because that’s when we are most likely to help others.

By the same token, however, it is NOT OK to gloat or derive sadistic pleasure from others’ suffering. The most appropriate emotional response—if you have no reasons to complain even as others are suffering—is, in my opinion, to feel centered, grateful, and compassionate. That is, it is important for those not suffering from the various sources of coronavirus stress to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others.

We can do this in any number of ways, from continuing to pay your employees and helpers, to patronizing restaurants by ordering delivery and donating money to those out of work (e.g., artists). I am sure that even those whose lives have been significantly negatively affected by the outbreak would agree with this recommendation.

Facebook image: progressman/Shutterstock

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