The Power of Empathy

Catherine Chambliss, professor of psychology, has had a lifelong interest in the balance between human beings’ capacity for caring and their capacity for competition.

“When someone else succeeds,” she says, “the caring part of you wants to celebrate that person’s success. The competitive part of you feels threatened and depressed. This is a constant struggle.”

In her 2017 book, Empathy Rules, Chambliss coined a new term—freudenfreude—to describe the joy people take in the successes of others. The word is the flip side of schadenfreude, or the pleasure we feel over others’ misfortunes.

Based on empirical studies that were later replicated by researchers in Europe, Chambliss found that depression is often associated with low levels of freudenfreude and high levels of schadenfreude. This phenomenon, she concluded, becomes self-reinforcing, depleting our resources for enjoying others’ successes and causing us to lose friends.

After working with people with severe mental illness, Chambliss and her students concluded that empathy promotes mental health. They developed the interpersonal mutuality training system, based on two positive behaviors for which Chambliss invented words.

Shoy means sharing another person’s joy,” she says. “Bragitude means that when you talk about your accomplishments, tuck in an expression of gratitude. If you’re celebrating having passed an organic chemistry test, thank your roommate for keeping the room quiet to help you study. And if someone is telling you about their success, ask them how they did it.

“You build freudenfreude when you establish nurturing relationships with other people.”