Caspar van Lissa makes a case for more empathy in the world. Try to put yourself in his shoes and see what he is talking about.
The promise of academic excellence has lured many prospective students onto University College’s historical campus. If you make the cut, you’re rewarded with three years of cramming and the level of teacher-student interaction that others daydream about when they doze off in their college amphitheater. Between these walls, young minds are groomed for success – or so we’re led to believe. But how do we define success? Every recent graduate is bound to realize soon after emerging from UCU’s brick cocoon that, in the real world, success is not an academic concept. There are no grades or re-takes for the challenges you will face in life. In our present cultural context, the economic definition of success seems paramount. Your bank balance offers the same convenience of quantification, free from the restrictions in range that constrained your grades in school. The sky is the limit! But one might wonder how sensible, or sustainable, an economic definition of success is, particularly in the context of global recession. How central is wealth to our well-being?
Psychological research shows that wealth matters far less than we think. Particularly once people exceed the level of subsistence, wealth hardly predicts life satisfaction. Instead, research suggests that the need to belong – a desire for connection and caring relationships – may be the most fundamental and psychological human need. This would suggest that what matters most is not the money we make, but the quality of our relationships with others. Of course, we all experience moments of personal victory, and some of us strive for that feeling of achievement. But what would be the pleasure of success if we had no one to celebrate with? Would your achievement have been possible without the many who came before you? What would be the value of your work if no one could enjoy its benefits, or be inspired by your ideas and carry on your work after you? Success is inherently social in nature. The connections we make with others are fundamental to our wellbeing, and necessary for the achievement and the enjoyment of success. Moreover, relationships are free, healthy, ecologically friendly and sustainable.
In a world with limited resources and 7 billion human inhabitants, our lives are inextricably linked. Even at the molecular level, we’re all part of the cycle of life. We breathe the same air, drink the same water. The molecules that make up the food that we eat become part of us, and they have been part of something – or even someone – else before that. Yet our culture would have us believe that we are individuals, only responsible for shaping our own life, and for that we are competing with the other 6,999,999,999 human inhabitants of the earth. In this race for success we pollute the air we breathe, and poison the food and water. For better or for worse, the future of our world will be the joint product of the small, everyday actions of billions of people. The relevance of our ability to connect and coordinate is especially pertinent now, when the world we live in is facing major challenges in the realms of ecological disaster, economic injustice, and peace and security. The key question is whether the awe-inspiring power of coordinated human effort can be harnessed to tackle the global crises we face today.
The way in which we can individually contribute to this effort is not self-evident. Of course you could dive in headfirst and dedicate your entire life to reversing climate change, combating economic inequality, or promoting global peace. But this requires a tremendous leap of faith, and if you are anything like me, you are probably not chomping at the bit. You have places to go, people to see. But I know one man who jumped in head first: My grandfather, Edy Korthals Altes, who was a whistleblower during the Cold War. He devoted the better part of his life to the promotion of peace and cooperation between religions and science. From a young age, I was instilled with a deep sense of responsibility to contribute to a sustainable future. This was primarily a consequence of his fiery dinner table speeches (sermons). But I am an academic at heart, and (as my contemporaries at UCU can attest) definitely not cut out for politics. So for a long time, I struggled with the question how I could contribute to this vision of a more interdependent, sustainable future. I discovered the answer to that question during my time at University College.
I was always interested in understanding and connecting with people from all walks of life: To see the world from their perspective. As a young student, this fascination drew me to psychology. At UCU, I was particularly inspired by the late Professor Willem Wagenaar, who spoke passionately about the way he used psychological science to fight injustice in the courtroom. In his honor, I still wear a bow tie when lecturing. He demonstrated that psychology can improve the quality of people’s lives. My own interest, however, was not in the courtroom, but in the field of relationships. I used to read my textbooks as instruction manuals, and engaged in social experimentation to understand and improve the way I relate and connect with others. It is no coincidence that for my PhD I’m studying empathy, the social glue that binds us together as a species. Empathy refers to mutual understanding and shared emotion. When people empathize, there is a shared representation of the self and the other on a neurological level. People can engage in cognitive perspective taking to see matters from another person’s point of view, and they can experience an emotional caring response, or feel others’ emotion as if they were their own. Empathy is what makes us so uniquely capable to connect, to work together and achieve astonishing results. By exercising empathy, we can harness the power of coordinated human effort.
I believe that the key to our survival lies in our ability to connect. We depend on other people; for our wellbeing, our success, and for overcoming the challenges we face on a global level. In a highly interdependent world, social skills are survival skills. With this vision in mind, I co-founded an institute called Social Excellence. Through coaching and team building, we promote the social skills that help people connect, create synergy, and prosper together. Success is social in nature, and relationships, businesses, and humanity as a whole will flourish if we work together towards our mutual benefit. One main conclusion from my research on empathy is that perspective taking is the key to overcoming conflict and differences of opinion. Just asking adolescents to pay more attention to their mother’s point of view helped them reach more mutually beneficial outcomes in conflicts. The same principle applies on different levels, whether in the family systems that I study, in a corporate setting, or between nations. But I believe that an even higher level of perspective taking is required to address the challenges that we face today. This tiny blue ball called earth is home to all of us. It is a beacon of life suspended in the vast emptiness of space; vibrant but fragile. It is our source of life, and we are inseparably connected to it and to each other. When taking this perspective, all of the arbitrary distinctions and differences of opinion that divide us are blown out of the water. This clears the way for a new dialogue, a coordinated human effort, to move towards a more interdependent, sustainable future.