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In February, Canadians received a rude wake-up call about the lack of compassion of some Ontarians. After a late-night Amber Alert chimed on cellphones signalling the abduction of 11-year-old Riya Rajkumar, some people turned to social media, not to express concern for a child in peril (Rajkumar was later found murdered), but to vent about having their sleep disturbed. Others called 911 to complain, jamming lines for people with real emergencies. The angry blowback to the blowback was swift. Yet an identical cycle was unleashed during another Amber Alert a few months later (happily, the three-year-old boy was found safe).
The selfish reaction to the alert was upheld as more proof of dwindling societal empathy, of “me-first” narcissism, of the further tattering of the social contract that citizens share. The reaction to the reaction was telling, too—reflexive judgment, mockery and name-calling. The entire dust-up serves as a microcosm of a far bigger conflict now playing out: the urgent call for compassion as the last-gasp remedy for systems on the brink—politics, health care, civil society, the planet itself.
The public hunger for compassion in politics registered in March with the rapturous praise heaped on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her empathetic response after the horrific attacks on Christchurch mosques that killed 51 and injured dozens. Ardern’s first words, “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” a Muslim greeting meaning “Peace be upon you,” were followed by a bid to unify: “We feel grief, we feel injustice, we feel anger, and we share that with you.” She offered more than “thoughts and prayers”: her government gave financial assistance to help families with burial expenses, then passed legislation to ban most semi-automatic weapons. A photograph of the PM embracing a Muslim woman went viral—reproduced by artist Loretta Lizzio as an 18-metre mural on a silo in Melbourne, and illuminated on a Dubai skyscraper.
Ardern, and her call for “kindness over fear,” as she put it in a United Nations address last fall, is viewed by many as a flower growing through concrete at a time of rising isolationism, tribalism, racism and authoritarianism. Cruelty is used to divide and win votes—Donald Trump mocking a disabled New York Times journalist, Boris Johnson, a front-runner for British PM, objectifying Muslim women.
The U.S. government has literally institutionalized cruelty, caging migrant children and arresting “Good Samaritans” helping ailing migrants at the Mexican border. Austerity programs, including those in Ontario, are targeting the vulnerable—the poor, children, those on the margins. The divisive, toxic political climate gave rise to the British group Compassion in Politics, founded last fall by activists and academics. “People look at British politics and see a lack of compassion in policy on refugees, immigration, housing, Brexit,” group co-founder Matt Hawkins tells Maclean’s. Forty years of neo-liberal, free-market policies created widening inequities, falling incomes and a sense of desperation, he says. “There’s frustration with a political system that puts party above universal progress, majorities in Parliament over collaboration.” Support has been overwhelmingly positive, Hawkins says, including from the moral philosopher Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky; there’s interest in Australia and they’re liaising with Ardern’s office. In May, a cross-party group of British MPs called for legislation to contain a “compassion threshold.”
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The loudest cries for compassion, tellingly, are heard within systems literally created to care for people. Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference, by American physician-scientists Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, published in April, is the latest book to sound the alarm about systemic inhumanity within “patient-based” medicine. The authors identify a “compassion crisis” in U.S. health care; treating patients more kindly, they argue, improves health outcomes, reduces doctor burnout and lowers costs.
Canada is in similar straits, Toronto physician Brian Goldman, author of the 2018 bestseller The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life, tells Maclean’s. “We’ve designed a system that edits out empathy, that makes it almost impossible.” Something has to crack, Goldman says: “We’ve reached the limit of the myth of the superman-superwoman [doctor] who can juggle 10 things at once.”
James Doty, founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, speaks in similarly urgent terms. Doty, a medical doctor and professor of neuroscience, links a societal lack of compassion to a slew of ills, personal and political—epidemic levels of stress, anxiety and depression, bullying, crime, growing wealth and health inequality, more children growing up in poverty. Like the Compassionomics authors, Doty presents compassion as a value proposition: “It’s estimated that businesses lose well over $200 billion secondarily to anxiety and depression, which translates into decreased productivity, decreased creativity, increased health care costs and increased human resources costs,” he says. Work he and others are doing, he says, reveals the power of compassion and caring in myriad ways, beginning with self-empowerment. Promoting the return on investment of compassion is one way to get the attention of a selfish world. Now the question is: How do we foster compassion within systems designed to reward those who aren’t compassionate?
As Doty describes it, the personal and political are deeply enmeshed: “The ills of the world are a manifestation of individuals’ responses to wounds of the heart that haven’t healed,” he says. “When people are hurt and damaged, that has a huge impact on how they interact. You can even take it into the justice system. I say the majority of people are in jail not because they are bad people; they’re in jail because they were not cared for and loved.”
His own story illustrates how it only takes one person to change a life. Doty was raised amid instability, he says; his father was an alcoholic, his mother, paralyzed by a stroke, was suicidal; the family lived on social assistance and was often evicted from their home. “When you grow up in an environment like that, you quickly see the good and bad in people. As a child, I struggled with what motivates people to be kind, empathetic and compassionate, and also what it is that stops people from doing that. That has remained with me.” His life changed at age 12 by a simple act of kindness. Visiting a magic store, he fell into conversation with the owner; she went out of her way to help him rethink the way he saw the world—that his background coloured the way he interpreted events, and that he could alter his internal dialogue to not harbour anger, shame or despair, he says: “I felt hopeful for the first time.” He went on to a successful career in medicine, including stints in the U.S. Army and in the tech sector. In 2007, he returned to Stanford and proposed to study compassion. He was told it was a “dead end” academically—a “soft” topic no one took seriously. Doty founded the centre in 2008 with his own money—outside contributors included the Dalai Lama.
By then, the quest for compassion and empathy was a micro-industry, a self-help sub-genre. Its credibility was linked to the mainstreaming of “mindfulness,” attentiveness to the present moment that’s clinically proven to alleviate chronic pain and stress and improve performance. The market for “how-to” compassion books was growing: the Dalai Lama’s 2001 book, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, was a bestseller.
Of course, the world’s religions are underlined by human kindness, or agape, Greek for “love of mankind.” A more secular society receives its sermons via TED Talks, as the psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, noted in his own 2007 TED Talk titled “Why Aren’t We More Compassionate?” He made it clear the reason wasn’t a lack of TED Talks: “I’m struck by how one of the implicit themes of TED is compassion.”
Neuroscience—brain-mapping fMRI scans that revealed how compassion and empathy can change us physically and mentally—conferred an evidence-based imprimatur. The discovery that mirror neurons are triggered in our brain when we see someone who’s sad, angry or happy provided insight into empathetic responses—and helped explain the payback of “compassion begetting compassion.” The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, published in 2017, was the first collection of academic research on the topic. “It’s science, it isn’t ‘woo woo,’ ” says Doty. (Oxford is home to its own multidisciplinary empathy centre—the Empathy Programme.)
Animal-rights advocacy also shaped our understanding of compassion, and human nature. Marc Bekoff’s 2010 The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint argues that the competitive “nature, red in tooth and claw” paradigm doesn’t reflect how animals interact co-operatively; it also casts light on the fact that Charles Darwin also believed that animals, like humans, could be emotional, empathetic and moral beings—and that co-operation and caring shaped the course of evolution as much as competition and ruthlessness. “Ruthlessness allows for self-benefit, but it’s not a long-term survival strategy,” says Doty. Most people behave co-operatively, he says: “That’s how society survives. Otherwise you’d have anarchy.”
Goldman’s The Power of Kindness provides a tour of the thriving global compassion complex—he takes readers from a lab at Université Laval (“Mecca for brain research on empathy”) to Japan to engage with empathetic androids. Ironically, development of artificial empathy in companion robots able to detect and respond to human emotion has cast light on empathy’s presence (and absence) in humans.
Within the compassion sector, a line is being drawn between the utility of empathy, which is feeling and understanding another’s emotions, and compassion, which involves action. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom argues the point in his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Cognitive bias makes us more likely to “feel” for those with whom we identify or find attractive—typically those seen to be innocent and defenceless, Bloom writes. But true compassion requires helping those with whom we don’t relate. That, in fact, defines it.
A quick read of compassion research offers a host of selfish reasons to behave kindly: those who do are more self-empowered, happier, less lonely and less prone to anxiety and depression. “Helper’s high” has been linked to the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Just 15 minutes of daily meditation reduces anxiety and decreases the risk of depression, and makes one a more thoughtful, happy person, Bloom says, before adding; “Don’t get me wrong. These practices can’t make up for horribly unjust systems. If you’re in solitary and being tortured, all the meditation in the world won’t result in a happy outcome.” Volunteering might even extend life, according to a 2019 University of Buffalo study of 800 people who experienced war and other forms of trauma that are typically predictors of a shorter lifespan; those who volunteered lived far longer. That said, acting kindly to get what you want doesn’t achieve the same effects: it’s the mark of a con man and psychopath.
Studying compassion also reveals a problematic paradox: it can be inhibited by the very fear, greed and tribalism fuelling the call for compassion. To be compassionate, people have to feel safe: the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and caregiving can only emerge if our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (i.e., fear, distress, anxiety, hostility) are not front and centre. People in the compassion sector say media can stoke fear: “Bad news sells newspapers,” says Hawkins, “But it also creates a very narrow version of the world that plays into the hands of the extreme right—that there are all these threats out there and we’re the ones to protect you. It’s not true, and it makes people hostile to one another.” Doty concurs: “People are wired to pay attention to threat, which triggers fear. Most things happening in the world are good; when you create negative narratives, it often leads to other negative events.”
The realities of modern life, including time pressure, can make us less compassionate. A landmark 1973 Good Samaritan study by Princeton psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson involved theological seminary students and a control group to see which would help a man in distress; neither group helped when in a rush. Getting richer also reduces compassion, according to some studies, which suggests those most likely to be running systems are least likely to be kind. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner found luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting their turn at the intersection. Other research indicates that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion toward others; that finding is backed by StatsCan charitable donation data showing people with lower incomes give more per capita to charity.
Viewing compassion as a quick-fix answer is also misbegotten, a point made in Karen Armstrong’s acclaimed 2010 book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Its closing pages indicate the title is misleading: “The attempt to become a compassionate being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day—or even in twelve steps.”
Even those in the field don’t always walk the walk. That was seen last year when acclaimed empathy researcher Tania Singer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, was accused by current and former staff of bullying, creating an “atmosphere of fear” and mistreating employees who became pregnant. Singer, known for her work demonstrating that meditation makes people more kind and caring and a 2004 study that showed watching a loved one in pain activates the same brain areas as feeling physical pain directly, resigned last December. The story was greeted gleefully in the media; some in empathy research were more compassionate, seeing it as an example of how bullying behaviour is rooted in fear—in this case Singer’s anxiety that her research was in peril.
Albert Einstein said empathy can’t be taught: “Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. It is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.” Stanford and Oxford disagree. With the non-profit Compassion Institute, Stanford offers an eight-week $395 “Compassion Cultivation Training” course; its graduates teach throughout the world. There’s no shortage of courses in health care, says Goldman: “We’re tripping over each other to create courses in empathy. Do they work? Maybe.” Basic empathy etiquette can be taught, Goldman believes: “Don’t stand over a patient, sit with them, go eye-to-eye. If you’re sitting across and you’re at loggerheads, sit beside them so the two of you are staring out at the same horizon.” But real change involves a 180-degree systemic attitude shift, he says: “Doctors have to be willing to be vulnerable, to admit mistakes and uncertainty, and to ask questions of a concerned patient, such as: ‘When did you start to think I was missing something here?’ ”
A more modest yet still powerful teaching incubator can be found in Natalie Miller’s kindergarten class at Larchwood Public School in Dowling, Ont. Miller came up with the idea for “kindness elves” that assigned written “kindness challenges” at the start of the school year. It was a way for students to bond, she tells Maclean’s. “The curriculum is about contributing and belonging to your school, the community and your world. If students like you and feel safe, they will learn.” She came across the “kindergarten kindness ninja” movement online, and the kids embraced it, donning red headbands to perform stealth acts of kindness. Within months, they were setting challenges—leaving notes or kindness bracelets, making Jell‑O for the school and visiting a seniors’ home and a hospital to distribute toys to children. “They learned one action—a smile or a high-five—can improve someone’s day, and that being kind to someone else made them feel better about themselves,” Miller says. Miller, who has taught kindergarten for seven years, reports a different classroom dynamic—less acting out, higher self-esteem. “The kids are kinder to themselves and each other. They surprised and inspired me with how much compassion they could show.”
Implicit within the call for compassion is the need for collaboration—the recognition that the problems we face are too big to be solved alone. After the mosque attacks, Ardern asked for “a collective response” to condemn violence and terrorism within “a vicious cycle of extremism breeding extremism.” In May, she and French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the “Christchurch call,” a global bid to fight online extremism. More than a dozen countries, including Canada, Germany and the U.K., have signed on. So have Amazon, Facebook and Google. The U.S. has not.
Enshrining compassion in legislation is complex but possible, says Hawkins. He cites Scotland’s act to reduce the number of children who live in poverty by 2030 and Wales’s 2015 The Well-being of Future Generations Act, defined in part as the “process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being.” Ardern’s May budget was dubbed the “Well-being Budget” for promising to foster economic growth but not at the expense of people’s well-being. Budget processes need to change, Ardern told a business audience in Auckland; the traditional cost-benefit analysis “is often short-term.” While praising the country’s solid rates of GDP growth, she questioned the “quality of that economic activity and how it has been shared.”
But meeting short-term quarterly targets is how businesses, and governments, operate. Hence, the compassion sector is employing familiar language—framing compassion as a value proposition. The economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and a professor at Columbia University, is calling for the adoption of a “progressive capitalism” conducive to individual well-being as a remedy for the inequities and injustices rising from neo-liberal politics. Doty talks in terms of returns on investment of even the smallest acts. “They have profound effects,” he says, pointing out that people who repeatedly show up in emergency rooms can cost the hospital as much as $1 million to $2 million a year; a 1995 study indicated that assigning a person to be kind to them—nothing more—decreased hospital admissions for these patients by more than 30 per cent. “Often, they simply wanted to be treated with dignity, and when that occurs, their anxiety and fear decrease,” he says.
Mark Wafer discovered the business case for compassion years ago, when he co-owned six Tim Hortons franchises in Scarborough, Ont., with his wife, Valarie. Wafer, who is deaf, didn’t think he was being compassionate when he hired his first employee, Clint Sparling, a young man with Down’s syndrome, 27 years ago, he tells Maclean’s via email: “But maybe I was, subconsciously. There were other applicants, but because of the barriers I faced as a deaf youth trying to find jobs, I knew Clint’s chances were slim, so I took a chance and hired him.”
Training Sparling took a little longer, but he quickly became Wafer’s best employee. In time, 17 to 20 per cent of the staff, including senior managers, was comprised of people with disabilities. By the mid-2000s, Wafer was an advocate for a population whose unemployment rate is higher than 50 per cent. He used his own data to show that disabled employees “had higher productivity rates, worked in a safer manner, were absent less, were more innovative, required less supervision and stayed seven times longer than workers without disabilities,” he says. No one was making the case for inclusion from a business point of view then: “It was always around compliance or charity.” His actions inspired customer loyalty—people supportive of his values-based hires frequented his outlets. In time, more than 460 Ontario Tim Hortons outlets had hired at least one worker with a disability. When he sold his in 2017, Wafer made it a condition that all 46 employees with disabilities stay on; Sparling still works there today.
Wafer is an example of how individuals can change systems. Those calling for a compassion makeover know it requires a paradigm shift: “Real change won’t happen without a change in medical culture or in the culture of the C-suite,” Goldman says.
Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Victor Montori makes a more forceful call for insurrection in his 2017 book Why We Revolt: A Patient Revolution for Careful and Kind Care, a scathing critique of “industrial medicine” that argues health care has been co-opted by economic interests. (He founded The Patient Revolution, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing careful and kind patient care, in 2016.) The problem isn’t only greed, Montori says; it’s a fixation on performance standards. Yet performance metrics also pave the way for change, evident in acceptance of mindfulness and now, increasingly, compassion.
Certainly businesses, even politicians, are cottoning on to the value of empathy and compassion. The Empathy Toy, a blindfold game for children “that only can be solved when players learn to understand each other,” costs $499 ($299 for “educators”). “Empathy-based” research is the new buzzword in product development, another way of saying end-users’ feelings will be considered. And expect compassion slogans during the upcoming federal election campaign. Last month, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tweeted: “As Prime Minister my government will restore fairness, order and compassion to the immigration system.”
Yet there’s a final paradox in politicians giving lip service to compassion at a time when so many see its systemic adoption as essential to human well-being. Doty puts it bluntly: “Compassion is what’s going to save our species.” The alternative to willful change, Doty suggests, could well be violent uprising: “We know that when wealth and equality get so far apart and people think they have nothing to lose, you have bloody revolutions,” he says. “But the reality is that for our species to survive, we have to recognize we are all one and everyone deserves the right to dignity, the right to food, the right to security, to shelter and to health care. And until we go on a path toward that world view, we are doomed.”