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Lions Roar : May 2015
“Some people argue humans are born good or born bad; I think that’s nonsense. We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circum- stances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity.” THAT STATEMENT encapsulates thirty years of scientific research into human goodness. Negativity bias isn’t the whole story. There’s more to us than fight or flight. The interesting thing is that even in extreme circumstances, humans will override their natural flight response. And when we do fight, we won’t just fight for ourselves. We can and do fight for others. If a certain kind of person sees a child walking in front of a car, she’ll put herself at risk to knock the child out of the way. Some individuals will deliber- ately put themselves between a gun and other people. We can and do override our short-term self-interest, all the time. Every day, some of us put ourselves in harm’s way so that others can live. That heroic impulse is what Zimbardo now studies. He has researched who is most likely to commit heroic acts, and the prosaic answers include: black people more than whites, those who have exper- ienced violence or disaster before, and people with more education. But he has also found that heroism is a skill. People are more likely to make sacrifices on be- half of others when they’ve made a con- scious commitment to heroism and are trained to act heroically. Helping people to cultivate such skills is one of the most important things we do at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. We re- cently launched a new site, Greater Good in Action (ggia.berkeley.edu), which of- fers concrete, research-tested practices for individuals to cultivate strengths like awe, gratitude, empathy, and compassion This is the work of a lifetime. Chang- ing yourself is no simple task. And changing the world? That can seem impossible. Inner to Outer: Cultivating the Good in Society Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Oliver Burkeman have criticized positive thinking as a tool of social control. If you’re grate- ful for everything, they ask, how can you possibly see what’s wrong in the world? If you’re always being mindful—that is, cultivating non-judgmental focus on the present—how can you plan for the future? Does a focus on perfecting yourself mean that you ignore improving society? Practice: Write a Self-Compassionate Letter WRITE A LETTER to yourself expressing compassion for an aspect of yourself that you don’t like. Research suggests that people who respond with compassion to their own flaws and setbacks—rather than beating them- selves up over them—experience greater physical and mental health. First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, in- secure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personal- ity, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life. Describe in writing how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one will see it but you. The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, un- derstanding, and acceptance about the part of yourself that you dislike. As you write, follow these guidelines: • Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you uncondition- ally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself? • Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing you’re struggling with. • Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself. • In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled. Avoid judging yourself. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. It may be helpful to reread it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a re- minder to be more self-compassionate. 5 PHOTOBYSIMONEBECCHETTI/STOCKSYUNITED SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 61