For too long, social scientists have spent their careers examining all that’s dysfunctional about human behavior and relationships. There are hundreds of articles on anger, but only a handful on gratitude. There are journals devoted to aggression but not empathy. Researchers and funders have committed so much of their time, energy, and money to investigating what’s wrong with people that it’s no wonder humans see themselves as a destructive and self-interested species.
Slowly but surely, this vision of the human race is changing. We see evidence of this change in the growing positive psychology movement, which is studying the roots of human creativity, resilience, and happiness. We see it in the ongoing collaboration between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists, who together are exploring people’s ability to control their emotions. We see it in the growing influence of organizations such as the Fetzer Instiute, which is committed to fostering research on love and forgiveness. And we see it in the pages of this magazine.
The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being has created Greater Good to document these exciting, perhaps even pivotal, developments in scientific research—developments that are helping us understand the roots and the depth of the human propensity for goodness.
But the magazine is designed to do more than that. While it may take years before we better understand why humans do the good things they do, we’re already surrounded by inspiring examples of how they do them. Greater Good will not only present new research and theories on positive human behavior; it will highlight people and community-based programs that bring these theories to life. Their ideas and actions defy our conventionally pessimistic view of human nature.
Each issue of Greater Good will feature a symposium on a different theme. These symposia will unite people from disparate backgrounds—scientists, teachers, policy makers, authors—to share their insights into a common subject. In this inaugural issue of Greater Good, the symposium is on compassion.
Why compassion? At a time when it’s especially easy to see humans as selfish, belligerent, and individualistic, we can overlook or dismiss the significance of compassion. Yet current research on compassion could reorient our understanding of who we humans are and what we’re capable of accomplishing. This research suggests compassionate behavior not only exemplifies a good, moral way to live, but carries great emotional and physical health benefits for compassionate people, their families, and their communities. More and more, it seems that rather than being irrational and superfluous, compassion is actually conducive to human survival—and essential to human flourishing.
The contributors to our compassion symposium make this case persuasively. Charlie Garfield’s pioneering work with volunteer caregivers testifies to the tremendous health benefits of compassionate connections between people. Marilyn Watson’s education research has shown how the emotional and intellectual needs of children go hand-inhand. Benjamin Karney and Lisa Neff’s studies of young married couples point to the vital role of compassion in successful marriages.
This does not suggest that the hostility and conflicts we see in the world are an illusion. But it does suggest that they are not inevitable. Leading by their scholarship and their example, the people featured in this issue of Greater Good are living proof that greed and selfishness are no more natural, no more vital to human survival, than love and compassion.