UC Irvine class teaches students the science of compassion

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Humans aren’t all bad, according to UC Irvine‘s Compassion Action Project.

At least that’s the premise of the program, which seeks to teach students the science of compassion and provide them with the tools to make a positive impact in struggling communities.

The initiative includes classes, project grants and a travel abroad program.

“It turns out there’s a lot of interesting work emerging that changes our narrative about the human condition,” said Paul Piff, who teaches an online course on the science of compassion available to all UC students. “Science tells us we are not necessarily these self-interested Machiavellian organisms. We are biologically predisposed to be compassionate. It is part of our system when we are born into this world. People who are more compassionate live longer, healthier lives.”

The initiative was created in 2017 by UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation and the Living Peace Foundation.


Piff said compassion isn’t generally thought of as something that can be studied scientifically, but his class delves into its evolutionary origins, how it develops in children and the situational factors that lead people to be more compassionate.

Students learn about research that shows people are happier if they spend $20 on somebody else rather than themselves.

The course also provides students with exercises to further the reach of their compassion. One of these calls for students to close their eyes and imagine that someone they don’t like is sitting in front them. They are told to imagine that this person wants to be well and happy, just like them.

“There’s a skill set we want to teach students,” Piff said. “I think it allows students to think about questions we don’t have answers to, and get out of the classroom to connect with the world around them.”

As part of the initiative, seed grants of up to $3,000 are given to select students to address needs in their communities or ones they’ve visited.

Some students get the chance to travel abroad to work with nonprofits. These Global Service Scholars have volunteered at a women’s prison in Peru and an elephant rehabilitation camp in Thailand, among other experiences. These trips allow students to exercise their compassion in an unfamiliar community with unfamiliar people.

Isabelle Lee, a third-year undergraduate student at UCI, went to Nepal in August as part of the program. She worked with Her Farm Nepal, a nonprofit that aids women who come from abusive households, live in poverty and struggle with mental illness.

The nonprofit seeks to provide the Nepalese women the means to make a living by teaching them trades, including photography and videography, as well as the ability to cultivate their own food.

Lee helped with physical labor, planting millet and maintaining dirt roads in the remote mountain community.

“It was amazing being there for these women,” Lee said. “They came from such traumatic experiences and still were so resilient and strong and trying to live a happy life.”

Lee said she learned that many nonprofits don’t make an impact, despite their claims. She hopes to go into the not-for-profit field in the future to help change that.

Other students detailed their experiences in blog posts.

“Another problem also lies within Westerners coming to Nepal and telling the people, ‘This is what you need,’ ” wrote Uyen Mai. “Instead, we should be asking, ‘What do you need?’ For example, supplying all the women in a village with sewing machines doesn’t necessarily guarantee a stable income.”

Hy Duong, a neuroscience major in premed, worked at a sustainable greenhouse in South Africa with women who hadn’t been paid in nearly a decade. Despite economic and social woes, the women developed a junkyard into a sustainable food resource.

“For the sake of community development and women empowerment in the Philippi slum area, their sacrifice, resolute commitment, and dedication to their profound purpose are just truly mind-blowing,” Duong wrote. “But above anything else, their humility, selflessness, and compassion.”

Piff said the college will continue to grow the compassion initiative.

The program is still young and ideas are being developed at a rapid pace. One idea Piff proposed was developing a guidebook for humanitarian workers to avoid “compassion burnout,” when an aid worker becomes overwhelmed by the trauma and stresses of those they are helping.

“We have a lot of ideas right now,” Piff said. “We are building rapidly but we will stick to the core mission.”

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