These feel like turbulent times. From mass shootings in the US to the rise of far-right parties and terrorist attacks in Europe, we seem to be entering a new age of extremism.
If there is any solution to this, I think empathy has to be part of it.
In this new five-minute video for Aeon Magazine, I argue that tackling extremism, and creating a more moral world, requires shifting our focus from empathy as an individual emotional response to empathy on the collective level.
This evening I told my six-year-old-twins the bad news: we have to put down our aging tortoiseshell cat Scully. Part of what made the task emotionally difficult was not just that they love the cat but that they live in a culture where they are shielded from death. If they’d been living in the nineteenth century they probably would have already seen a dead body, maybe laid out in someone’s home or at a neighbourhood funeral. But not today, where our contact with death, and conversations about it, are remarkably limited. Death is a subject as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era, even though issues such as euthanasia and palliative care are creating an element of public discussion. Continue reading →
Here’s a new podcast from the rather wonderful Aeon Magazine, in which philosopher Jules Evans explores the theme of empathy. I kick off by talking about the history of empathy, tracing the concept from Adam Smith’s ideas in the 18th century and through developments in child psychology over the past hundred years. Then comes Maria Konnikova, who makes the case that Sherlock Holmes was a master of the art of empathy, based on her new book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Finally there is novelist Tobias Jones, who discusses his attempts to create an empathic community at his home in Somerset.
Roman Krznaric is the author of two popular books that came out this year – The Wonderbox: Curious histories of how to live and How to Find Fulfilling Work – and is also one of the founding faculty members of The School of Life, which teaches the art of living to its clientele. He talked to me about his work in the past with Theodore Zeldin, how The School of Life came to be, and how the practical philosophy movement can do more than offer lifestyle tips, and might even help to tackle the great problems of the age.
Would you say there is such a thing as a ‘practical philosophy movement’?
Yes, though it’s a very broad movement. What’s happened is that over the last 20 years there’s been a revolutionary rise of interest in the question of how to live. And that question has taken a practical focus in many ways, through philosophy clubs and organisations like the School of Life and Oxford Muse. Continue reading →
To give you a taste of her book, and the conversation we had, I’d like to pick out five of Brené’s ideas that I find to be particularly insightful, original and applicable to everyday life. Continue reading →
In this interview with bestselling novelist Fiona Robyn featured on her blog Writing Our Way Home, I discuss my approach to the process of creative writing and thinking, and suggest why creativity is not about originality, and how musician Brian Eno can help us think more adventurously.
Fiona Robyn: What drives your creative work?
Roman Krznaric: A disastrous cultural inheritance from the Renaissance is the idea that creativity is about originality. We have in our minds the image of geniuses like Michelangelo, who was worshipped for his stunning originality, which seemed to be a divine gift from above. But I think that is off-putting for most of us, and makes us feel that if we aren’t being brilliant and original then we are lacking a creative streak. Continue reading →
About the book Part of a new series of guides to everyday living from The School of Life (edited by Alain de Botton), How to Find Fulfilling Work aims to help people navigate the labyrinth of career choices out there and to find a job that is big enough for their spirits. It busts plenty of myths along the way, such as the idea that you can trust personality tests to guide you to the right job, and offers wisdom from philosophy, psychology, history and literature. There are plenty of unusual solutions to our career dilemmas too, including taking a radical sabbatical and aspiring to be a wide achiever rather than a high achiever, as well as timely career advice from Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and even Zorba the Greek. And you will meet a woman whose 30th birthday present to herself was to try 30 different jobs in one year.
The School of Life series is being launched with events around the UK and beyond.
Other authors in the series include Alain de Botton, Philippa Perry, John-Paul Flintoff, Tom Chatfield and John Armstrong.
Best wishes and happy reading! Roman
Extract from the opening of Chapter 1: The Age of Fulfilment
Rob Archer grew up on a housing estate in Liverpool where there was 50 per cent unemployment and the main industry was heroin. He fought his way out, studying hard and getting to university, and found a great job as a management consultant in London. He was earning plenty of money, he had interesting clients and his family was proud of him. ‘I should have been very happy, but I was utterly miserable,’ he recalls. ‘I remember being put on assignments in which I had no background but was presented as an expert. I was supposed to know about knowledge management and IT, but it all left me cold, and I always felt like an outsider.’ He did his best to ignore his feelings:
I assumed I should be grateful to just have a job, let alone a ‘good’ one. So I focused harder on trying to fit in and when that didn’t work, I lived for the weekend. I did this for ten years, burning the candle at both ends. Eventually it caught up with me. I became chronically stressed and anxious. Then one day I had to ask the CEO’s personal assistant to call me an ambulance because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack. That’s when I knew I couldn’t go on. The problem was that all the alternatives – changing career, starting over again – seemed impossible. How could I trade in the security of my comfortable life for uncertainty? Wouldn’t I be risking all the progress I had made? I also felt guilt that I should even be searching for such luxuries as ‘meaning’ and ‘fulfilment’. Would my grandfather have complained at such fortune? Life appeared to offer an awful choice: money or meaning.
I was recently interviewed by The Browser – a fabulous site which compiles quality writing from around the web– about my five top books on the art of living. In the following extract I discuss George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a book which has been a major inspiration for all my work on empathy.
George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is your second choice. What does it teach us?
I think that Orwell was one of the great travel adventurers of the 20th century. The reason I think that is because in Down and Out in Paris and London he showed that empathy could become an extreme sport and the guideline for the art of living. It’s the second half of the book that I particularly like, in which he describes how he went tramping in east London. He would dress up as a tramp and go into the streets of London, fraternising with beggars and people living on the streets. He was trying to empathise with people who lived on the social margins. Continue reading →
Christopher Wakling’s new novel, What I Did, is a brilliant, dark and often excruciatingly funny journey into a family nightmare. Narrated by a six-year-old boy obsessed with the animal kingdom, it has been the recipient of scintillating reviews, was nominated for the Booker Prize and is fast becoming a book club favourite. I talked to the author – who is also a respected teacher of creative writing – about what it takes to write through a child’s eyes, and what can happen to you when you do. Continue reading →
Why do we shudder when we watch a tarantula crawling across James Bond’s chest in a 007 movie? And what can looking into a monkey’s brain tell us about our capacity to share in the emotional experiences of other people? Answers to these questions appear in The Empathic Brain: How the Discovery of Mirror Neurons Changes our Understanding of Human Nature, the fascinating and entertaining new book by Christian Keysers, Professor for the Social Brain at the University Groningen in the Netherlands. Keysers, one of the world’s most distinguished and innovative neuroscientists, was part of the famous team at the University of Parma, Italy, that discovered auditory mirror neurons in the macaque monkey, which has revolutionised thinking about how empathy works in human beings. In this exclusive interview for Outrospection, I talk to him about his book, and how far neuroscience has really taken us in our understanding of empathy.Continue reading →