From social applications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, human beings have been misunderstood as purely, or at least primarily, self-interested creatures. During Emma Seppälä’s time as science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, she has observed behavior that challenges much of this received wisdom. Her book is The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.
When we think of compassion, we often think that, “I’m either a compassionate person or I’m not. So and so is compassionate or not.” The truth is that research shows that we all have compassion and that being kind is actually our first response. It’s our first automatic tendency. So when you give people only a few seconds to make a decision about whether they’ll be fair or not, whether they’ll share or not, whether they’ll be kind or not, their very first impulse is to do it. If you give them a little bit more time to think about it, maybe they’ll choose a more selfish option, but there are a number of reasons for that as well. In many ways we live in a society where there is the norm of self-interest. We believe that we’re all self-interested. So sometimes people hold themselves back from doing an act of kindness because they’re worried that people will think they’re self-interested; that they’re doing it because they want to get something.
So what I’m trying to get at is that we all built to be kind, to be compassionate. There’s this idea out there of survival of the fittest and we attribute that to Darwin. That was false. Darwin’s message was much more akin to the idea that what he called sympathy, or what we can call compassion, is the reason that we’re alive today. We’re such a vulnerable species. Look at how we’re built. Our skin is so thin that if we didn’t have each other to support each other through the dangers of life and so forth, if our ancestors didn’t stick together and help each other, there is no way we would have survived. So he actually pointed more to the fact that compassion was essential to our survival. So, compassion is innate, first of all. But secondly it can be strengthened. So if you feel like you would like to nurture that more in your life, you can do so through practices like meditation, but also through actively deciding that you want to, every day, be as kind as you can to the people around you.