It manifests in small gestures like giving up your seat on the subway, as well as large acts like volunteering your time to rebuild homes and feed the hungry in the wake of disaster. Scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, are pooling their efforts to study an elusive phenomenon that pulls humanity together — kindness.
The university received $20 million from The Bedari Foundation, a private family foundation, to establish the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, a center designed to probe the "evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological" basis of kindness, according to an announcement. Previously, separate groups of UCLA researchers have tackled questions regarding the nature of kindness: How does kindness spread between people? How does kindness shape our brains and behavior? How can unkind people be compelled to change their ways?
"In the midst of current world politics, violence and strife, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute seeks to be an antidote," Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA division of social sciences, said in the statement.
The scholars have settled on a definition of kindness, according to the Los Angeles Times: Kindness is "an act that enhances the welfare of others as an end in itself." Though performing acts of kindness reportedly benefits the do-gooder by reducing their stress levels and risk of succumbing to infection or serious illness, good deeds should be intended to benefit the recipient alone. Kindness requires selflessness, and humans require kindness to succeed as a species, said Daniel Fessler, UCLA anthropology professor and the institute's inaugural director.
"Our species is a hyper-cooperative one. No other species is engaged in such a large level of cooperation among individuals who are not kin," Fessler told the LA Times. Fessler asserted that humankind came to dominate the world largely thanks to its ability to work together and get along.
The institute aims to promote kindness through online programs, lectures and educational materials in addition to wellness apps like the meditation assistant UCLA Mindful. The university's resident sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and neurobiologists plan to share their findings with the world at large in order to "build more-humane societies," according to the UCLA announcement.
"My end goal is to have a broad platform to promote empathy and help people think about kindness," Matthew Harris, UCLA alumnus and co-founder of The Bedari Foundation, told the LA Times. "It is, in terms of the perpetuation of our species and the ability to live with each other and nature, critically important."
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.