Among the warriors for civility — a.k.a. kindness — is Jamil Zaki, 39, a Stanford University psychology professor whose lifework is focused on helping us become our better selves. For the past three years, he has been developing the tools to foster what he calls a “kindness revolution.” I know that’s an oxymoron — revolutions are most associated with overthrowing despots and are often very unkind. But this is a different kind of insurrection, and he begins with a startling premise: Empathy is not unalterable. It can be cultivated, or tamped down.
Some may remember these lyrics from “South Pacific”: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.” Well, in that same vein, Zaki’s research shows that you can cultivate kindness and empathy. Or that we can be taught to love and care.
Much of his work has taken place on the Stanford campus, where he leads a class called “Becoming Kinder.” It is designed to address the crisis of empathy and help people fight back against the increasing trend of polarization and disconnection. We have all seen evidence of it across the political divide, and among all age groups, but Zaki finds it especially notable among college students.
Zaki alsowrote a new book titled “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” “In the three years I spent writing [my book],” Zaki said, “I discovered more and more evidence that empathy is indeed a skill that we can build, and that doing so is a crucial project for us, both as individuals and as a culture. . . . I wanted to put the book’s principles into practice.”
Frankly, I’ve always thought that empathy is hard-wired, so I was skeptical. To riff off Lady Gaga, you’re born that way — or not. Zaki said that’s only partially true.
“There’s absolutely a genetic component to empathy and kindness,” he said. “When we hear something is genetic we immediately go to the idea that it’s 100 percent hard-wired — that there’s nothing you can do to shift where you are on the spectrum.” But his research has shown “there’s lots of evidence that our experiences, our choices, our habits, our practices go a long way to predict how empathetic we become.”
So we can rewire our brains to become more empathetic. In today’s fractured landscape, I find that idea promising indeed.
One of the ways to measure empathy is with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (the “empathy questionnaire”), which I filled out and sent to Zaki.
I maxed out on “empathetic concern,” which Zaki said “is most associated with kindness towards others and well-being in one’s self.” But I fared much less well when it came to two other metrics — my ability to see things through someone else’s eyes or to become distressed by their suffering. This was disheartening.
Zaki says the more someone practices kindness toward others, the more likely they are to build long-term empathy.
So how does one practice kindness? Zaki offers five “kindness challenges” (found on his Web page), which I undertook. “True to their name, these exercises are meant to stretch us beyond our comfort zone: first recognizing, then bypassing our instincts to empathize only with friends, family and people who look or think like us,” he says in a video on the site.
Or if you happen to be a Stanford undergrad, you could take his class. That is what then-first-year student Natalie Stiner did last winter.
Stiner and her 15 classmates completed a lot of reading about “what it meant to be kind, what empathy was, how empathy worked.” But, for the Michigan native, the best parts of the class were the kindness challenges, with the first being her favorite because it required examining a personal failure.
She chose to work on her relationship with her older sister Sarah after yelling at her for no good reason.
“That was a failure of mine,” she says. “I wasn’t kind in this moment.”
This small act of self-reflection became her focus during the week-long challenge. Suddenly, Stiner had an “aha” moment: “I was kinder to strangers than to my friends [and family].” With this awareness, she “tried to acknowledge when they were kind to me, when they were doing things for me that I wasn’t appreciating enough.”
“The improvements [in my interactions] I made were so huge,” she said. “I think that empathy is something that can definitely be worked on and improved at all points in your life, even through adulthood and on.”
This is Zaki’s point: “We can grow our empathy if we want to. Our emotions are not animalistic impulses.”
Julio Ballista, a Stanford sophomore this year, saw the course’s relevance to the challenging times in which we live.
“I feel like there’s a lot of contention between different [political] parties, different people,” he said. “If I could find ways to become kinder myself, then I could give that to a bunch of other people who may also need it.”
This notion is what Zaki describes as contagion and is a core part of his understanding of kindness and empathy.
“An individual’s kindness can nonetheless trigger people to spread positivity in other ways,” he explained. “There’s really something in it for individuals by practicing it. [Research suggests] empathetic people are going to finish first, they’re going to be happier and they’re going to have greater professional success.”
I think the toughest of Zaki’s challenges is learning how to “disagree better.” As he explained, it’s crucial “to move beyond the first pass assessment of what someone believes and why we hate what they believe and into a deeper exploration of that [person] as an individual, as a human being.”
In this challenge, he tells his students to find someone they disagree with and “assert those disagreements but instead of debating the point or sniping at each other, try and ask them to cultivate curiosity about how they came to have that opinion in the first place.”
I did this recently with a new acquaintance whose political views are 180 degrees different from mine. In the process I learned a great deal about his background, his feelings of disenfranchisement and hopelessness.
Frankly, it was impossible for me not to feel empathetic even though we didn’t share any common political ground.
Zaki said he hopes people will begin to practice “empathetic habits,” including making contact with people who are different from ourselves.
“I mean making one-on-one individualized contact with a diverse group of [people],” he emphasized. In a world roiled by a lot of disputes and anger, and with many people set to gather together for the holidays, there’s no better time than now to take the professor’s advice.