If you’ve had a bad date and need someone to talk to, your most happily married friend is probably not the best choice—even if she thinks she is.
A study published in the journal PLOS One found that people who are in a good mood gave themselves higher marks for their empathetic skills than people who were feeling down did. However, when researchers evaluated their ability to empathize, the data told a different story.
In the study, 121 participants were asked to vividly recall either a positive, negative or neutral memory and then write about it briefly. The participants then watched four videos of people discussing different experiences of varying emotional intensity—extremely positive (getting a ballet scholarship), moderately positive (a late-night drive through the desert), intensely negative (the death of a parent), moderately negative (a dispute with landlord). The participants were asked to assess how the people in the videos were feeling at each moment, adjusting their ratings whenever they saw the person’s mood shift.
When asked how much they empathized with the subjects of the videos, and how empathetic they perceived themselves to be in general, the participants who were in a good mood greatly overestimated their skills. Although they were skilled at detecting shifts in the moods of people relaying positive experiences, overall they were no better at empathizing than anyone else. And when the happier group watched the highly distressed person, they received the lowest scores for empathy.
“This is of note because individuals who are experiencing intense negative emotions may often be those who need support and empathy the most,” said the authors of the study, “Not As Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion Is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance.”
The study did not specifically address the issue of how well the happily coupled empathized with those who are single and searching, but heartbreak is definitely one of the more challenging emotions out there—one study found that rejection actually changes your heart rate.
Logically, it makes senses that when you are single and struggling, you’d turn to your happily coupled friends for their wisdom. But your equally frustrated single friend might be a better bet.
The study authors note that it’s just possible that people who are in a good place might be less able to able to shift out of that state. “It perhaps takes more sacrifice to ‘drop down’ and focus on another person’s high-intensity negative emotions,” they said.
In other words, it’s not that your blissfully paired off don’t want to help, but they might not be up to the task.
What do you think? Who of your friends gives you the best support and advice?