If we’re constantly “optimizing” for speed, are we propelling ourselves toward a culture without empathy?

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Illustrator: Brittany England

I was in my car on the way to the station. From there, I’d take the train an hour into the city and walk another 15 minutes to the office.

My 5-year-old son stayed behind with a sitter who would take him to school so I could get to work on time. Each day, I left the office early to pick him up by the time his day care closed. He was the first one there and the last one to leave.

Every morning as I rushed out the door and kissed my little boy goodbye, I questioned this lifestyle.

Of course, due to financial strain or lack of support, some of us don’t have a choice.

As I drove to catch my train on this particular morning, a voice wafted through the car speakers. The topic of discussion was Princeton’s good Samaritan experiment, a 1973 study that put the empathy of seminary students to the test.

Presumed to be some of the more altruistic members of society, the group was chosen to help the researchers understand why people help in some situations but not others.

One group was the “hurried”group. They were told they were running late to deliver a sermon. The second group was the “unhurried” group. They were also giving sermons, but had ample time to do it.

As the students approached the building where they were expected to speak, they passed a man slumped in a doorway, coughing and groaning. While 63 percent of the unhurried students stopped to see if the man needed assistance, only 10 percent of those in the hurried group offered help.

The study shows that being in a hurry significantly reduces empathy and the motivation to help those in distress.

As a mom rushing off to work with a teary-eyed little boy back home, the point struck a chord.

I’ve often wondered why we’re in such a hurry to get somewhere other than where we are. In the grocery store aisle, in traffic, or waiting for our morning coffee, we always seem to be tapping our feet and checking the time.

The sense that we don’t have enough time is referred to as “time urgency,” a common trait in the stereotypical type A personality. London Business School professor Richard Jolly notes that about 95 percent of the managers he studied for over 10 years experience it.

According to a 2013 study, time urgency involves “an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency… in which a person feels chronically short of time, and so tends to perform every task faster and to get flustered when encountering delay.”

Rushing can block meaningful communication, cause stress, and breed resentment. Research also indicates that anxiety can lead to egocentric behavior.

Physiologically, stress triggers adrenaline and cortisol in the body, which can have negative effects over time. All the more reason to slow down and take a breath.

Nothing made the reality of time urgency more stark than living in Thailand for 3 years.

Known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand is famous for running on its own time. If you’re going to an event that starts at 10 a.m., don’t expect anyone else to show up until it’s roughly 11.

As an American, this was maddening at first. I was the type to arrive 5 minutes early as a show of good faith. This didn’t get me anywhere in Thailand.

After I lived there long enough, I adapted to the slower, leisurely pace and started to understand why “jai-dee” (kind-hearted) and “jai-yen” (cool-hearted) were common phrases in Thailand.

“Jai-yen” is meant to describe someone who doesn’t lose their cool in tense situations. By contrast, someone who flies off the handle or gets belligerent is said to have “jai-rorn,” a hot heart.

It was common for people to hold eye contact when they spoke to me, to place a hand on my shoulder and smile. I wasn’t used to this level of intimacy at first, but eventually relaxed enough to enjoy it and return it in kind.

I noticed as I rushed from errand to errand in the typical fashion of most Americans that I was doing it as a distraction, not because I was actually under a deadline.

This behavior seemed both inexplicable and amusing to many of my Thai friends. As someone who has experienced anxiety throughout my life, I started to feel more than a little bit neurotic in the most literal sense of the word.

Once I started to allow myself to slow down, I felt like I actually arrived in Thailand and in my own body for the first time.

Not only that, but I felt much more connected to other people. I was tuned in, more aware of other’s needs, and less preoccupied with my own. In short, I was more empathetic.

Going slower shifted my attention from checking off tasks on some invisible mental list to actually connecting to the people around me and to my environment.

In 1974, cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman coined the phrase “hurry sickness” to refer to “a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time.”

Think FOMO on steroids.

Friedman and Rosenman even argued that hurry sickness could lead to heart disease.

This gives the phrase “cool heart” a whole new meaning.

So, then, if we’re constantly “optimizing” for speed, efficiency, and the goal of being first, are we actually propelling ourselves toward a culture without empathy?

Research indicates that the answer may be yes.

Once I started to allow myself to slow down, I felt like I actually arrived in my own body for the first time.

Healthline

Ever the optimist, I believe that all it takes to hone our empathy instinct is a little practice. While I’m stateside these days, there are still plenty of opportunities to practice empathy and keep my hurry to a minimum.

Here are some of my favorites.

Put your phone on timeout

My phone isn’t the boss of me. I don’t pick it up whenever it rings, because if I do I start to feel like a performing monkey.

I also resist the urge to pick it up to fiddle when I’m bored. If I’m waiting in line, at a red light, or riding on the train, I try to sit with the sensation of impatience and boredom rather than giving into it. This helps me build resistance to instant gratification.

If I don’t have an actual reason to pick up my phone but I do it anyway, I’m letting my impulses run the show. I show my phone (and my dopamine receptors) who’s boss by being intentional about what I use it for.

I remember it’s a tool, and I’m using it. It isn’t using me. When it’s pocketed, I connect more to the people around me.

Make friends with everyone, even for a moment

It may seem unimportant, but a smile and a little sincere small talk goes a long way.

Whether I’m at the grocery counter or picking up takeout, I make an effort to keep my phone in my pocket, look the clerk in the eye, and strike up a little conversation.

Meeting someone’s gaze makes us more subtly aware that they’re a whole person in their own right, and it lets them know that we see them that way.

In a sense, every time we don’t look someone in the eye as we move through the mundane parts of our day, we’re losing an opportunity to see and be seen as a relatable, valuable human being with a sense of shared identity.

It’s important to note that individuals with neurodivergent conditions like autism may have difficulty with eye contact, and that’s OK too.

Let someone else go first

Sometimes I’ll let someone else go first just for the heck of it.

We both made it to the checkout line at the same time? You take this one.

Are we both heading for that freeway on-ramp? Have at it, stranger! You can’t have road rage when you’re choosing to yield.

It’s not about virtue signaling and patting myself on the back. It’s about training myself to be patient (because I’m not), letting go of being competitive (because I am), and keeping my blood pressure at healthy levels in the process.

Take longer just because

It may seem counter to efficiency, productivity, and just about everything society values, but taking more time to do something just for the sake of enjoying it creates little moments to appreciate the things we might otherwise miss.

Even though that long commute to the office took a big bite out of my day, I often chose to walk on a different street than the most direct route, even if it added 5 or 10 minutes. It gave me a fresh perspective on an otherwise rote experience.

I’d often notice murals, shops, and passersby I didn’t see on my typical course. Not only that, but it gave me the opportunity to be curious about what I might find around the next corner.

It kept the experience fresh, which put me in a better mood. As a result, I was friendlier and more patient with my co-workers.

“I have learned that nothing is as pressing
As the one who’s pressing would like you to believe
And I am content to walk a little slower
Because there’s nowhere that I really need to be.”

— Bright Eyes

Healthline

Find ways to be bored

Boredom has actually been shown to spark creativity. It encourages us to find solutions to our discomfort, think differently about otherwise mundane things, and create novelty out of complacency.

When we’re not preoccupied with complex tasks or stimulating media, we have to use our imagination to come up with ways to spend our time. Often, this results in human connection.

I experience this firsthand when I take away my son’s video games. After a little bit of moaning about how unfair his life is, we usually end up playing a board game with the entire family, giving us a chance to connect rather than zone out.

Practice random acts of kindness

Doing things for others is actually good for us, even to the point of reducing death. Kind acts have also been shown to reduce anxiety.

It’s simple enough to practice kindness in small moments throughout the day, no large investments or grand gestures needed.

Try wiping the milk and sugar off the counter at the cafe, refilling the office coffee pot when it’s empty, or bringing your friend some soup when they’re home sick with a cold.

For more ideas, try the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

Try compassion meditation

Metta meditation is a practice for cultivating loving-kindness. It involves reciting positive phrases toward yourself and all beings.

It’s especially useful for reducing negative emotions toward yourself and other people, and has even been shown to decrease symptoms of PTSD.

Meditation also engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, the opposite of “fight or flight.”

If seated meditation isn’t your thing, The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley has plenty of suggestions for boosting kindness and generosity, from writing exercises to discussion prompts.

As we get more hurried, are we becoming less human?

I can say that in my own experience, it’s a lot more difficult to maintain a “cool heart” in a fast-paced environment. It seems that the good Samaritan researchers would agree.

What effect is this constant hurry and stress having on us as social creatures? And what would the world look like if we weren’t always rushing to get somewhere?

It seems clear that there’s a connection between slowing down, reducing stress, and being more connected, empathetic, and at ease. Flexing that muscle makes life a little sweeter, and can help us become kinder human beings.


Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for anxiety through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.