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A Pathway To Kindness, In 12 Difficult Steps

Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh embarked on a social experiment to become kinder and more empathetic.
Henry Leutwyler
Courtesy of Jessica Walsh
Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh embarked on a social experiment to become kinder and more empathetic.

For lots of people, New Year's resolutions don't last. Two New York designers wanted to change that — and they wanted to change themselves at the same time.

So, Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh, best known for the viral blog and book 40 Days of Dating, created a yearlong social experiment to see if following 12 steps could make them more kind and empathetic people — and they're releasing details about each step on their website.

"We created the steps based on what we read and learned that psychologists say can make you more empathetic," Walsh told NPR's Rachel Martin. "And then after we had the steps set up, we asked ourselves what we wanted to explore for each of those."

Their first step was called "Can I Help You?" The pair took the opportunity to ask every New Yorker they saw how they could help in some way.

"We talked to so many people that day," Goodman recalls. "From people who were losing their apartments in New York, to people that just wanted to talk about broken family ties. Relationship issues. Homeless people. I mean, we talked to so many people, it was pretty amazing."

"The idea was really just to start out the project by taking a survey of what other people around us might be going through on any one day," says Walsh.

In other experiments, the two tried their hands at being telemarketers or canvassing. They left wallets all over the city with money and notes asking people to use it to do something nice. They hung missing person signs and sat next to them. They noticed how people reacted.

But for other steps, they focused on their personal lives.

Walsh says the fourth step, "Don't Beat Yourself Up," about "learning not to beat yourself up about things from the past," was the most challenging for her.

"Psychologists say you need to forgive yourself for things you are angry with, otherwise you can transfer that on to other people," Walsh says.

"So I've always had this secret that I've carried with me that I haven't really told anyone, which is that when I was much younger I went through a lot of mental health issues," she continues. "So on the step, I end up opening up about all of those, and I'm creating a platform where other people are going to be sharing their stories, as well."

For Goodman, the most difficult step came next.

"I went out and tried to find my biological father who I've never met in my entire life. That's for step five — and that was about forgiving someone who may have hurt you in the past, and coming face-to-face with that and trying to maybe better understand their situation," he says.

They made some physical changes, too. Goodman approached step six, about facing fears and insecurities, by shaving his head.

This experiment really allowed us to do things we would have never done before.

"One of my insecurities is going bald, because my hair is slowly thinning in the front. And so we shaved my head down to the scalp, and I had to live with that experience," he says. "It was very hard; I was not happy."

But he says the experience helped him be more empathetic by "being happy with who you are, whoever you are."

And sometimes things got a little weird. They tried just smiling at people on the street for one full day. People didn't smile back.

"I think it came off creepy. Maybe that's why people didn't smile at us," Goodman laughs.

"Then we thought, 'OK, what happens if we start frowning at people?' And then everyone was cracking up," says Walsh.

The experiment helped them to take a step back, to think about their place in the world.

"That's one of the biggest things, when it came to those kind of steps that we did, the less personal stuff, was just witnessing yourself in relationship to society," Goodman says. "Every day, you know, there's a heartbeat, and feeling yourself a part of that is truly amazing at times."

"We just get caught up in our daily routines and doing the same kind of things," says Walsh. "And this experiment really allowed us to do things we would have never done before."

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