We all have that family member or friend — sometimes more than one — who's unfailingly cheerful, seemingly unflappable, and the first to tell you to look on the bright side. And, sometimes they drive you absolutely crazy!
Now, just in time for the holiday's cheery togetherness vibe, science has a fresh clue as to why permanently happy people can be so annoying. New research published in PLOS ONE, and led by Yale's Hillary Devlin, indicates that the happier an individual is, the more empathetic she perceives herself to be. But, she also tends to overestimate her powers of empathy and is actually worse than others at detecting negative emotions.
To arrive at these findings, Devlin's team evaluated day-to-day happiness levels of 121 adult volunteers, who also self-evaluated their ability to empathize with others. Then, participants watched a series of videos of people delivering speeches — some about negative topics, some about positive ones. The speech-givers had previously rated their emotional states at different points throughout their speeches, and as participants watched the speeches, they recorded what they thought the speech-givers were feeling as they spoke. Finally, participants' ratings were compared with the ratings given by the speech-givers.
As it turns out, participants with the positive-emotion trait — the "permanently happy" participants — were not as good as other participants at detecting downward shifts in emotion. But, they were better at detecting upward emotional shifts. In other words, they could better recognize when speech-givers were getting to their own level of happiness.
So, there you have it: Happy people think they're pretty good at sussing at how others are feeling, but they're actually no better their moodier counterparts. And, in the case of negative emotions, they may be worse. We may not be annoyed by cheer-monsters because we're jealous, but because we feel we're not being heard or understood when everything isn't hunky-dory. Fortunately, chipper individuals can remedy their empathy disconnect by asking questions and listening to the answers. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind when your mood — or your loved one's — is more "bah humbug" than "merry and bright."