In August and September of 2013, students from over 200 countries took the world's first Social Psychology "MOOC" (massive open online course). The class was offered by Wesleyan University, hosted by Coursera.org, and drew more than 250,000 students, making it the largest synchronous university course ever given.
The final assignment of the course, "The Day of Compassion," asked students to live 24 hours as compassionately as possible and to analyze the experience using social psychology. Roughly 700 students received a perfect score on the assignment, and the class then voted on which of these students deserved a Day of Compassion Award generously sponsored by the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).
In 2014, the grand prize winner will be flown on an expense-paid trip to Stanford University and have the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits that area. In addition, CCARE will donate $1,000 to any prosocial nonprofit organization chosen by the grand prize winner, and $100 to nonprofits chosen by each of ten students who received Honorable Mention. Here are some other pages related to the assignment:
Balesh Jindal, a physician and artist who lives in a rural area near New Delhi, India, won the grand prize for finding a way to address the problem of sexual violence toward girls in her community. During the Day of Compassion, Balesh visited a local school that has more than 2,000 female students ranging from 4 to 17 years old and belonging to a relatively low socioeconomic class. The school divided students by age into five groups of 350-400 girls, and Balesh taught each group about inappropriate touching and how to report incidents of abuse. These talks uncovered multiple cases of abuse by neighbors, brothers, cousins, and even fathers. After the Day of Compassion, Balesh invited the mothers of abused girls to her nearby clinic for free counseling, and she decided to set aside one day each week to help these girls and to work on reducing child sexual abuse.
Vanna Booker spent the Day of Compassion volunteering at a local drug rehabilitation center for women with children. What makes her act of compassion especially noteworthy is that she was born and raised by a mother who was addicted to drugs, and until carrying out this class assignment, had made sure that she and her children stayed away from anyone abusing drugs. By volunteering to help women who suffered as her mother did, Vanna hoped to develop more compassion and let go of some hate. Although emotionally difficult, by the end of the day Vanna felt that she had come to better understand people suffering from addiction. In fact, approximately one month after the Day of Compassion, she began working as a regular volunteer at the drug rehabilitation center and is now hoping to become an addiction counselor. Summing up her Day of Compassion, Vanna wrote that she felt her "heart grow three sizes that day."
Although she's normally quite shy, Kellie Gillespie spent part of her Day of Compassion talking with a homeless man who had become estranged from his family. Many years earlier, while in his teens, the man had left his home town for London after having an argument with his father, and he hadn't contacted his family since that time. Kellie offered to let him use her mobile phone to call his family, but he felt too ashamed and asked Kellie if she would make the call instead. She then placed the call and told his mother that he was alive and wanted to see the family again. His mother was overjoyed, spoke with him on the phone, and asked to see him as soon as possible. Kellie gave him money for a bus ticket to return home, and she later reflected: "Perhaps the most insidious force that gnaws away at our ability to feel compassion is habituation… We become blind to the things we see every day, and this blindness makes it hard for us to feel compassion." To listen to Kellie tell this story in a National Public Radio podcast, visit The Science of Compassion.
After nine years living abroad, Stephanie Jalube happened to be visiting her home country of Colombia on the Day of Compassion, and she decided to visit an old family friend whom she regarded as an uncle. She had heard that the friend was depressed and lonely, so she thought that a visit might cheer him up. As soon as she saw him, though, it was clear that things were much worse than she imagined. Stephanie then took him out to eat and told him how happy she was to see him again. They talked at length about his troubles, and she used social psychology principles to instill hope and persuade him that life could be beautiful. What she didn't realize when she stopped by his house to visit was that he was about to commit suicide. He called Stephanie the next day to say that without knowing it, her act of compassion had prevented him from taking his life.
Paul ("Cambo") Campbell
Paul ("Cambo") Campbell is an Australian fitness coach who decided that on the Day of Compassion, he would raise money for the Salvation Army by completing 1,000 sponsored push-ups over the 24-hour period. The Salvation Army is an international charitable organization that helps people in need, and Cambo's goal was to raise $1,000 AUD by securing a total sponsorship of $1.00 per push-up from clients, friends, and family members. Much to his surprise, people responded so enthusiastically to his effort that by the time he completed 1,000 push-ups, he had raised $6,500 for the Salvation Army!
Samih Abed Uthaib
Samih Abed Uthaib is an Iraqi physician who began his Day of Compassion by holding a clown party in the pediatric cancer center where he works. He and others dressed up as clowns, danced and sang, and gave the children gifts to lift their spirits and sense of hope. Upon returning home later, he learned that his own children were sad because a girl in their neighborhood was being forced to drop out of school due to her father losing his job. Samih then met with the parents and decided to pay the 800,000 Iraqi dinars (around $700) in school fees needed to let the girl continue her education. He also phoned the head of staff in his hospital and found part-time work for the girl's father. Although the day was exhausting, he reported that it made him happy and changed him forever. In his words: "It made me a different person. As a doctor, I practice compassion and empathy everyday, but this day was different."
Nataliya Zubar works for a Ukrainian non-governmental organization that helps people whose civil rights are violated, so she is used to helping other people. On the Day of Compassion, she took this willingness to help a step further when she wore a prominent sign that said "Need help? Ask me!" and walked along a crowded street in the city where she lives. She also printed and distributed a flyer inviting others to practice compassion, and she gave a copy to everyone who asked what she was doing. All told, Nataliya distributed 152 flyers and talked with 22 strangers about their problems, often just listening and suggesting ways to obtain further assistance. The reactions people had were very positive, and one person even called Nataliya the next day to say that she had saved his marriage.
Jalpan Thakkar's Day of Compassion began with an insight: To the government of his home country, India, millions of illiterate and impoverished people are invisible because they lack official proof of their identity. In India, identity proof is required for government welfare programs offering food, medical care, pension facilities, and so on. Jalpan therefore spent his Day of Compassion helping disadvantaged people in his community obtain a voter identity card—a form of identity proof that lasts for life and not only allows people to receive life-saving benefits but to vote and, in so doing, make the democracy of India more inclusive. Undaunted by the magnitude of social injustice around him, Jalpan referred in his essay to a famous quote that has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."
Lisa ("Chase") Patterson
Last year, Chase Patterson's youngest sister went blind in one eye, and after weeks of medical tests, was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis (a disease that attacks the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves, often leading to disability). This diagnosis was particularly hard for the family to accept because her sister is an unemployed single mother of three and is accustomed to being very independent. On the Day of Compassion, Chase invited her sister, niece, and nephews to live with her, and they accepted the invitation so quickly that the family moved in within just a few days. In her essay, Chase wrote that Social Psychology has led her to do a lot of thinking "not just about my life, but about the lives of those around me… Don't wait for others to make the first move… Every single person you come across every single day can use a kind word or gesture."
Arianna Wills, a professional dancer who lives in the Great Britain, carried out several acts of compassion and kindness on the Day of Compassion. What was most unique about her experience wasn't what happened on that day, however; it was what took place soon afterward. While stopping to buy a coffee during her walk to work, she also bought a cappuccino for a homeless man who often slept near the coffee shop. She then struck up a conversation with him and learned that he had become homeless after his wife and children died. Tearfully, he explained that without his family, he had become lost and unmotivated. Once the conversation was over, Arianna spent the rest of the day searching for organizations able to help him, and she returned the next day with a representative from an aid organization. Although initially suspicious, the homeless man eventually agreed to work with the group and now has a chance to get back on his feet.
On the Day of Compassion, Kelsey Williams decided to become a vegetarian in order to reduce animal suffering and the impact of livestock on the environment. She also set up an appointment to donate plasma, and she arranged to volunteer at a homeless shelter downtown. Perhaps the most interesting part of her 24-hour experiment came in the evening, when she waited tables at the restaurant where she works. Throughout her shift, she exercised patience with her customers, smiled genuinely, and made sure not to complain about anything. The result was not only that she enjoyed her work much more than usual but that she received considerably more money in tips. Her explanation was that patrons had noticed her positive attitude and tipped accordingly.