As a child stuck in the middle of his parent’s contentious divorce, Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki had his first lesson in empathy. “That two people’s experiences could differ so drastically, yet both be true and deep is maybe the most important lesson I’ve ever learned,” he writes in his new book The War for Kindness, which hits shelves today.
With The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Zaki uses a scientific framework to drive home the idea that empathy is something that we can all learn and benefit from: “When people believe they can become more caring through effort, they put in that effort, including working harder to connect with people who look or think differently than themselves.” Garnering early praise, it was recently featured in the Harvard Business Review, and has been called “a masterpiece” that “will stay in your heart forever” by Grit author and Lavin speaker Angela Duckworth.
Modernity is eroding our sense of empathy, says Jamil Zaki. But there’s a lot we can do to reverse this troubling trend. As Director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab, Zaki has explored and studied the neurological foundations of empathy, as well as the social. Empathic powers are not so much a trait gifted to a lucky few, he argues, but a skill that can be cultivated by anyone, at any time. Moreover, it is a skill that he believes should be central to our lives.
“Empathy evolved as one of humans’ vital survival skills,” Zaki writes, noting that over millennia, humans have become less aggressive and more perceptive of one another’s thoughts and feelings. It is only through our foray into the modern world that we have lost touch with our evolutionary empathy.
“Empathy and kindness sound like rosy topics, but our culture has made them thorny,” Zaki explains. “We’re surrounded by alienation, animus, and exhaustion. These forces push against empathy, making it feel emotionally unaffordable. Choosing to care anyway requires fighting back against those forces. In many contexts—such as our polarized political climate or in the face of growing cynicism—empathy is an act of defiance.”