'Bleeding Hearts' Are More Prone To Depression, But There Is A Silver Lining

by Mary Katherine
Martin Dimitrov / Getty Images

“We all like to think that being kind, responsible, and fair will lead to a happy life. But what if we’re wrong?”

Thus begins a recent article published in Scientific American, which examines a new study suggesting that socially empathetic people are more prone to depression.

You don’t say, Science. You don’t say.

Now, if you have ever looked at the broken world around you and felt an immediate desire to hide under a pile of blankets, eat Twinkies, and cry yourself to sleep, then you probably already knew that this was true.

Well, take heed, you sweet-hearted soul, because chances are you would be considered a “pro-social” — the exact type of person this new study concerns.

With economic disparity widening across the globe, doctors from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan designed a study to examine how people emotionally respond when presented with social inequity. In order to do this, scientists divided people up based on “social value orientations.” These were determined by how they responded to unfairly distributed resources.

Participants fell into one of three different categories: pro-social, individualist, or competitor.

Or for simplicity’s sake: Bleeding Hearts, Selfish Jerks, And People Who Don’t Know They Are Selfish Jerks.

Next, the scientists distributed money in unequal amounts and watched as their participants’ brains lit up like Christmas trees. In the first round, participants would unfairly receive less money than everyone else in the room. Unsurprisingly, when they realized this was happening, their brain activity exhibited high levels of stress.

Nobody likes to be victimized, and nobody likes to feel poor. Who knew?

But when the roles were reversed and participants unfairly benefited from the distribution model, only one group seemed to mind. Guess who? That’s right: your friendly, neighborhood pro-socials.

(God, I love these people.)

Pro-socials responded emotionally, regardless of whom the system benefited. When they saw inequity in action, their brains fired off signals of stress, sadness, and guilt. Turns out, these social justice warriors don’t just have a learned distaste for economic inequity. They have a hardwired, automatic aversion to it.

With this data in mind, the scientists followed up with all three groups over the course of two years, concerned that certain patterns of brain activity may be more prone to depression. What they found probably won’t shock you.

Those empathetic, bleeding heart pro-socials? They tended to struggle a little more than everyone else.

A pro-social’s core sensitivity is measurably unique. Heart, brain, and soul, these people are emotionally affected by injustice in the world around them. That’s why they are so freaking caring and inspired to enact change.

But while it’s true that this core sensitivity can promote kind behavior, it can still be problematic. When left unchecked, that same sensitivity can snowball, with negative mental health consequences as the result.

So what’s a social justice warrior to do? Grow a cold heart? Sell their soul on eBay? Cut themselves off from society, so they never encounter suffering and inequity again?

No, my little badass bleeding hearts. No.

You should take this information and run with it. Remember that your awesome, empathetic brain may also have a tendency to lean toward clinical depression. So stay on top of it. Get the mental health support you need. Practice self-care. A pro-social person may have to fight a little harder than everyone else to ward off depression, but there are therapies available to those who are struggling.

As Jack Turban, writer for the Scientific American, says, “One can likely have it all: a core sensitivity to inequity that can drive kind behavior, and the strength to keep these emotions in check to fight depression. The pro-socials may need to do more work to fight off depression, but I — and I’m sure all the other pro-socials — will be rooting for them.”

I think you speak for all of us, Jack.

Hear, hear.