You’re with your spouse at your favorite restaurant after an arduous workday that started pre-sunrise. Understandably, you yawn while your honey shares an eye-opening LinkedIn post. Before you blurt out an apology, something odd happens.
Your spouse yawns! They slept in, had a leisurely afternoon and had so much energy five minutes ago that they practically skipped into the cafe. Why the yawn?
Is it possible that the love of your life is so dull that they are lulling themselves, and you, to sleep?
Don’t panic. Scientists have a different explanation. Your spouse’s physiology is poised to feel your pain or, in this case, fatigue. They yawn because you yawn. Contagious yawning is a primal sign that your honey is designed to empathize with you.
Flash forward five minutes. You yawn again and the waiter yawns back. Oh no! Is the server in love with you? Again, don’t panic. Scientists tell us that their behavior is normal. Waiters, being human, are neurologically designed to empathize with all humans, even weary patrons. In fact, researchers get people to yawn by simply plunking them down in front of a video of a yawning stranger.
It’s not just when you yawn that others feel for you. Scientists have pricked people’s fingers and the same pain-related area of the brain activates in the victims and the bystanders. Similarly, when you laughed happily at dinner, you delivered a shot of joy to your spouse, and to the waiter. Whether you’re in pain, elated, sad or experiencing almost any other emotion, you’re eliciting this emotion in others.
Altering people’s brain activity sounds like Star Trek fiction, but it’s merely nature. The brains of your loved ones, waiter and people generally have specialized cells, called mirror neurons, that replicate your experience in their brain. Humans are literally wired for the ultimate type of empathy: Feel what the body of another is feeling.
In fact, we are so thoroughly designed to feel each other that we can’t easily override this standard feature of the human race. Watch a Martin Scorsese movie and your heart will race, hands will clench and, if you’re as wimpy as I am, you might even scream when the fictional thug threatens the fictional hero. Empathy is so ingrained and automated that despite knowing it’s ridiculous to be concerned about a person who does not exist, you can’t arrest your empathic response.
Back at the café, the kitchen is slow to prepare your pasta. Your server is unhappy about your wait, courtesy of his mirror neurons. This prompts him to explains to the kitchen staff that you need to get home to rest. The kitchen staff agrees to speed up your order. The server then asks his manager for a café-branded $25 charitable donation card to give to you. (These really exist. You can order them through OneOC.)
Guess what? The waiter’s efforts to improve your life will improve his. They will release the same endorphins into his blood stream that sex and exercise do. What’s more, when you get on your phone and donate those $25 to the nonprofit organization of your choice, you also will experience what scientists call the “helper’s high.” Experimental data find that donating a mere $5, even if it’s provided by someone else, triggers the helper’s high. It turns out that humans aren’t just inclined to care about others, we are inclined to care for them as well.
What am I suggesting with this story? First, let me clarify what I’m not suggesting. Don’t you kick your employee, or spouse, to the curb if they don’t respond to your yawn with a yawn. Contagious yawning is an indication that, as a species, we are designed to empathize. A particular person in a particular instance not yawning is not proof that they are an insensitive jerk.
Instead, I’m encouraging you to offer workplace opportunities for promoting the wellbeing of others. Assuming they are human, your direct reports are designed to both empathize and act on that empathy — just like the waiter. In nerdy academic language, humans are “prosocially motivated,” meaning we have “the desire to expend effort to benefit other people.” Your staff feels and performs their best when being prosocial.
By encouraging and facilitating prosocial acts in the workplace, the café’s manager is applying a practice known as “job purposing.” (For job purposing how-to tips, see last month’s post.) As a result, he gets to work with happier employees and customers. (Plus, employees with purposed jobs are also more engaged and productive. See another post for details.)
What would your work culture feel like if you job purposed? How much more pleasant would your manager role be?
This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.