empathy

The Attraction of Reality Television

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(Photo Credit: Antonio Guillem)

By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

I write a lot about strategies people can practice at home to maintain their mental health. One of the strategies I use is watching reality television. It sometimes helps me prepare for my day as I watch the show while working out on a treadmill. Also, I sometimes use it as a tool when I need to decompress at the end of a busy day. Some reality television shows have a bad reputation for being unsophisticated, but it can be a useful tool for decreasing stress.

So why is this the case? One reason I have found reality television to be beneficial is that I can put myself in someone else’s world for an hour, which helps me forget about the stressors in my life. People may also find these shows engaging because they star ordinary people similar to themselves. There are multiple studies now that also support this reasoning for the appeal of reality television. For these reasons, watching reality television can help people manage their daily stress.

One recent study published in NeuroImage showed that reality television can trigger “vicarious embarrassment,” which is feeling embarrassed while watching another person experience something that could be considered humiliating. The scientists who conducted the study researched how the brain was affected when people watched several reality television clips showcasing the emotion of embarrassment. They found that the areas of the brain responsible for empathy, compassion, and suppression of self-interest were activated when a person watched these television clips. Based on both the self-report from participants and the brain activity data, they concluded that watching these shows simulated empathy since the participants had a better understanding of the reality star’s social suffering from their own personal experience. Even though the participants reported no explicit compassion for the person they were watching on television, their brains were able to relate to what they were going through since they related it to part of the human experience.

Another reason many people watch reality television is that the people chosen for these shows are ordinary people just like the people watching them. Reality television stars typically gain fame as a result of being on television. This can lead viewers to develop a fantasy that they could be chosen for one of these shows in the future, and if they were chosen, there is a chance that they would someday become famous too. Even though this isn’t motivating for all fans of reality television, there is a lot of appeal in watching someone similar to you competing on television or having cameras documenting their lives. Being on television is also seen as a status symbol in our society, so some people may also see being on television as a way to climb the social ladder.

Watching reality television can help people escape their lives temporarily and gain a better understanding of the human experience. We watch characters on these shows, season after season, getting to know many of the intimate details of their lives. We become close to these characters from a distance and begin to care about the direction of their lives. These are all reasons why reality television viewing can be used as a temporary, satisfying escape from our own lives.


References

Melchers, M., Markett, S., Montag, C., Trautner, P., Weber, B., Lachmann, B., …Reuter, M. (1 April 2015). Realty TV and vicarious embarrassment: an fMRI study. NeuroImage. 109, 109-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.01.022

Reiss, S. & Wiltz, J. (1 September 2001). Why America loves reality TV. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200109/why-america-loves-reality-tv

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The Buddhist Meditation Practice of Tonglen

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photo credit: Kwanbenz)

By Nicolina Santoro, MA, LMFT 

The act of being aware of how and why we suffer broadens our own understanding of the world by visualizing the reality of an empathetic connection we share as we breathe in. The meditative breath practice of Tonglen involves inhaling through the pain the person you are visualizing is experiencing or is perceived to have caused while breathing out a new frequency of love toward the person we are trying to help, accept or forgive.

According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Sogyal Rinpoche, Tonglen is effective in negating the restricting and sometimes detrimental influence of our ego by opening our hearts to those around us without losing ourselves in their personal drama. We are compassionate observers and teachers, while the people around us teach us about how their experience of suffering has affected them.

A powerful part of this practice is visualization, which has a number of cognitive benefits. Continually visualizing scenes that evoke positive emotional states reinforces the production of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with positive emotional states, and encourages the pruning of synaptic relationships that are counterproductive to this practice.

Tonglen Breathing Exercise

It is important to be in a quiet place where you can assume a comfortable posture. As this is a breath awareness exercise, it can be helpful to place your hand on your stomach to increase awareness of your diaphragm moving in and out with each breath.

While inhaling, visualize the pain associated with what you are trying to release around a specific person. Any confrontations or experiences that were especially salient to you will be a good fit for this exercise.

While exhaling, visualize having a positive healing experience with this person, where love is flowing from you to the subject of your practice. This practice is a process of thought transmutation that encourages emotional healing around a person or experience.

A good rule of thumb when adopting any meditation practice is to accept that you may find it difficult to focus while you are experiencing the miscellaneous thought traffic that will drift in and out of your meditation time. Also, if you are a novice meditator, keep it brief at first. Try 10-minute increments once daily until you can sit with ease, then increase the time in 5 or 10 minute intervals until you find what amount of time gives you the maximum benefits.


References

Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. (p. 195). NY:Harper Collins.

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Keeping Kids Humble Around The Holidays

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(Photo Credit: Sunny Studio)

By Melanie Ernould, Psy.D.

I have a friend who is divorced and raising a 7-year-old daughter. He and his ex-wife are immersed in a battle to see who can “out fun” the other. While the girl is lovely and sweet, I can’t help but wonder how much entitlement this is building in her. I am the parent of a 3-year-old girl, and I want to raise her to be a person who cares about others more than her own pursuit of fun or entertainment. But I look around my house and see the shear amount of toys she already owns, because she has two doting parents in two separate households, and also several sets of doting grandparents, and I feel a little nervous. My interactions with this friend and his daughter have me thinking about this topic a lot, particularly with the blast of commercialism that we face during the holidays.

I also had a friend who, for her son’s birthday party, requested that guests bring a book to donate rather than gifts. I thought this was a wonderful idea for many reasons, but at the same time, I remember the pure joy and excitement I felt on those few days each year that I got to open a pile of presents just for me. I’m not sure I feel a child should be completely deprived of that experience either. So how do we raise children who get to experience this joy, but also understand exactly how lucky they are to experience it? How do we raise little people who actually enjoy giving to others as much as they enjoy taking for themselves? I’m not sure I can answer that definitively, but it is a continuous dance to figure out the right balance for each individual child.

Here are 6 ways to help keep your child grounded in humility & empathy:

  1. Don’t overdo it with gifts over the holidays. Sometimes when grandparents are involved, this is hard to avoid. Do your best. Carefully evaluate what your child actually needs. Consider more experience-based gifts, such as museum passes or a trip. Check out this Huffington Post blog post for 18 non-toy gift ideas for children.
  2. Consider family activities that are less about manufactured entertainment (think Disneyland) and more about spending quality time bonding and connecting with nature. Go on a hike, bake and cook, or do an art project together. For an excellent resource on ideas that are arranged by season, see Amanda Blake Soule’s The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder Through the Seasons.
  3. Simplify your life in general. There are many, many things in our households that we don’t need. We think we need them, but we don’t. Re-evaluate your priorities and whittle down your stuff a bit. Clean out your closets and drawers and have your children help you donate items to charity. Start having a conversation about giving to others, and about the unnecessary possession of stuff. In addition, when you do need something, consider finding it used. I recently read this interesting blog entry about a family that happily simplified their lives.
  4. Model giving behaviors and humility. Apologize often, take responsibility and admit mistakes. As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. And the most effective lessons are through our own actions. Talk with your children about what you do for others such as volunteering and giving to charity. Additionally, when you express empathy to your children, they are more likely to grow up to be empathic individuals themselves. Research shows that parents who model empathic and caring behavior toward their children and others in front of their children are more likely to have children who demonstrate empathy and prosocial attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg-Berg, & Mussen, 1978; McDevitt, Lennon, & Kopriva, 1991; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979).
  5. Participate in volunteering activities with your family, and make them fun! Experience is also an incredibly effective teacher. We tend to isolate ourselves in our bubbles, ignorant to the plight of others. And in our society, it is easy to do so. Instead of turning a blind eye, expose your children to opportunities to give to those who are less fortunate. According to Wilson (2000), volunteering is associated with positive life-satisfaction, self-esteem, health, educational and occupational achievement, functional ability, and mortality. In addition, youth who volunteer are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as school truancy and drug abuse.To make the lesson of giving stick, it is important to do this all together as a family and in a way that can be fun for your children. Check out CBS Local’s list of great family volunteer opportunities.
  6. Finally, have frequent conversations with your children about empathy and giving to others. When a conflict arises, help your child understand the position of the other person. In addition, read books together and ask them questions to get them thinking. Many books can be a starting point for a conversation involving perspective taking, but these books deal with the concept of empathy specifically:
  1. Hey, Little Ant (Hoose, Hoose, and Tilley, 1998)
  2. The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need (Berenstain & Berenstain, 1999)
  3. Those Shoes (Boelts & Jones, 2009)
  4. Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (Applegate, 2014)
  5. The Invisible Boy (Ludwig, 2013)
  6. Charlotte’s Web (White, 2006)
  7. Prairie Evers (Airgood, 2012)
  8. Junonia (Henkes, 2011)
  9. Mockingbird (Erkine, 2010)
  10. Each Kindness (Woodson & Lewis, 2012)
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 2004)

References and Further Reading:

Eisenberg-Berg, N., and Mussen, P. (1978). Empathy and moral development in in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 14(2), 185-186.

McDevitt, T. M.; Lennon, R.; and Kopriva, R. J. (1991). Adolescents’ perceptions of mothers’ and fathers’ prosocial actions and empathic responses. Youth and Society, 22(3), 387-409.

Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 215-240.

Zahn-Waxler, C.; Radke-Yarrow, M.; and King, R. A. (1979). Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development, 50(2), 319-330.

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