I feel very strongly about kindness and empathy. I always try to be kind, even when I’m tired and in a hurry and I don’t feel like it. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. When I learned about a book called The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World I immediately knew I wanted to read it.
Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford University who has been studying how empathy works for many years and he wrote this book about his most important findings.
The first time I started thinking about empathy was after hearing David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water”. I realize there are serious problems with David Foster Wallace’s legacy, but the speech is so powerful I still want to quote it. The speech is about making a conscious decision to think about what you’re thinking, instead of just living your life on autopilot. Many of us are like the young fish described at the start of the speech. And the people in the supermarket. And the people stuck in traffic.
“If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.”
Our feelings and emotions are not determined by what happens to us. They are determined by how we react to what happens to us. I try to always keep this in mind and actively practice it. People who I think of as assholes who are in my way don’t think about the world with me at the center of it in the way I do. They, by definition, experience life and the world around them with themselves at the center of it all. They might have very good reasons for behaving in the way they do. They might be very annoyed by my behavior, even if I didn’t mean to annoy anyone, or if I had a very good reason for behaving the way I did.
I know for a fact that I’m sometimes annoying for the people close to me because whenever they complain about others I try to come up with suggestions about why the people they are furious at behaved the way they did. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to hear when you are trying to blow off some steam.
In the book, Zaki describes how empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness. It triggers us to help others, even at a cost to ourselves. This cost is worth it, both on a personal and an evolutionary level.
If many humans weren’t willing to help others we would not exist and certainly not thrive as a species. Human baby’s and kids are helpless for much longer than most other species’ offspring. They need their parents and community to take care of them, despite the cost of energy, time and money.
A personal benefit of empathizing is that it will help us to attract friends. We like people who empathize with us. Decades of evidence show that people who empathize with others have more friends and experience greater happiness.
I don’t just try to execute my quest for kindness and empathy in my personal life. I also extend it to my professional life. I work hard on building a culture that makes people feel appreciated and safe. Where leaders are kind and enable their teams to learn and grow and use their potential. Even if that potential is greater than that of the leader itself. We should reward people for achieving great things together, for helping each other and for leveraging everyone’s strengths.
Zaki’s research confirms that this is a good strategy. Organizations that focus on kindness flourish, even when it comes to the bottom line. In 2012, Google found that its people-oriented teams were also their most successful teams.
For several decades people have believed that the best way to motivate employees is by offering them bonuses for individual excellence. While this may motivate some people, most people feel unhappy in an environment in which they constantly have to outdo their colleagues. It generates anxiety, fatigue, and hostility. It limits results and increases attrition. A rewards system that promotes cooperation, on the other hand, increases morale and productivity.
The second person who has influenced my thinking about empathy is Tim Minchin. This also started with his commencement speech in which he shares 9 life lessons. Number three is about empathy and being humble.
“Remember, It’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.”
Tim Minchin’s idea that you can practice being empathic is in line with David Foster Wallace’s idea about actively thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s supported by Zaki’s research results.
A century ago, scientists were convinced the adult human brain was fixed. That it couldn’t grow or change. This also meant the assumption was that character and behavior was fixed. That it couldn’t be trained or adjusted. If you weren’t kind or empathic that was just who you were.
Part of who we are and how we behave is genetically determined. Studies have shown that empathy is about 30% genetically determined. For generosity, this is 60%. I guess that explains why my mum could have bitter discussions with my grandma about who was allowed to buy the other person dinner and why I have very similar discussions with my mum today.
If 30% of empathy is genetically determined this still leaves a lot of room for improvement through experience, training, and education. Our actions, inactions and life’s choices make a real difference. Education grows the brain, while stress causes atrophy. Empathy is a skill that you can improve on just like math, running, and weightlifting. People might start at different base levels, but their competency is by no means fixed.
Training to be empathic can be done by simply thinking about what you’re thinking. Feeling empathy is easier for someone you know personally than for the abstract concept of a group or a tribe. Especially if you don’t belong to that particular group. If you hate a specific group of people, getting to know someone from that group and being treated with kindness by that person can in some cases change your mind about the entire group. In the words of Mark Twain “Getting to know people and traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”.
People feel more empathy for others when they understand what they are going through. You can learn about other people and their circumstances in many different ways, but nowadays it can most realistically be experienced using Virtual Reality. Experiments show that people who have experienced a refugee camp through VR are more empathic towards refugees and are also willing to donate more money for relief efforts even months after their VR experience.
Actors pretend to be other people, which means that they have to think about what the person they are pretending to be thinks and feels. This is a form of practicing empathy. It’s therefore not surprising that students who train to be actors don’t only develop their acting talent, but also their empathy.
Reading and acting can be a way to practice empathy in safe environments, without judgment. Storytelling doesn’t just provide joy and amusement, it can also make people kinder!
I’m so fascinated by the impact that empathy can have and how you can learn to be more empathic that I could go on and on about it. I empathize with you, the reader though. I realize you have other (better) things to do besides reading this blog.
I do ask you to read or listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech and think about its contents.
If you are interested in empathy Jamil Zaki’s book is a very worthwhile read. In this post, I only touched upon a tiny little part of the topics that he discusses. If you are a parent, a caretaker, or if you work in medicine in one capacity or another the book contains some valuable insights that aren’t obvious. At least they weren’t to me.
Empathy is the mental superpower that can overcome the distance between two people. Empathy is personal, but it’s also collective. We are herd animals. We behave in the way we see people around us behaving. We observe others and copy parts of what they do and think. You only have to look at local accents to realize that this is true. Fortunately, we don’t just respond to norms, we also create them. Setting examples of kindness and empathy helps to let other people be more kind and emphatic too. Let’s create a trend together.