About

I would like to give you a more personal sense of who I am, rather than simply provide a list of facts and dates. I grew up mainly in Montreal, Canada, curious about the world around me and constantly asking “Why?” My first grade teacher predicted that I would be a philosopher, but my affinity for science and the strong scientific presence in my family led me towards a career in biology. My hope was to make a contribution to human wellbeing through medical research.

Jonathan LeightonAt Harvard, where I did my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, I explored other fields like philosophy and psychology, but I stuck to my original career plan, despite a persistent doubt whether my true passion was to work in a laboratory. By the time I had finished my PhD in Basel, Switzerland, in a field that was quite removed from human wellbeing, I knew that a classical academic career was not what I wanted, but I still didn’t know enough about the world outside of my science bubble. After several years in the Swiss fragrance industry, working with perfumers and trying to better understand the molecular basis of the sense of smell, I found myself in a highly unsatisfying corporate job, and snowboarding in the Alps on the weekends was insufficient compensation. A two-year stint at a Geneva-based communications agency that had just received the European mandate for the Gates Foundation allowed me to reconnect with issues I cared about. And then, with a renewed sense of purpose and the confidence to strike out on my own, I left.

My story since then is a deep exploration of big questions such as “What matters?” and an increasingly focused effort to share my understanding and put it to practical effect in having impact on the world. I spent several years writing a book, starting from a collection of notes and essays I had accumulated, in which I aimed to take a brutally honest and unbiased approach to answering the above question. The result was The Battle for Compassion, published in 2011. It has been highly rewarding and inspiring to discover how closely some of my ideas converge with those of a growing community of thinkers and activists committed to reducing human and animal suffering in the world.

Jonathan Leighton hosting TEDxLausanne

Hosting TEDxLausanne

I have since been giving talks on this topic to various audiences, from MBA students to environmentalists, and developing my ideas further. I am on the Advisory Board of the Effective Altruism Foundation, an ambitious think tank whose goals I share.

After producing a 20-minute film to communicate some of my key ideas in a readily accessible form, I am now putting my energy into new projects aimed at embedding compassionate values into our global system through a combination of science and creativity. These include a project to introduce compassion, ethics and rationality into the educational curriculum using a new toolkit for educators, and new film projects to promote the priority of reducing suffering. I am also on the Steering Committee of a newly launched project to create a new handbook on suffering by the end of 2016, along with some of the world’s experts in this field, in an effort to develop the field of “algonomy” (the study of suffering) and provide a compilation of useful information to anyone who cares about reducing suffering. Associated with the handbook is a project I am taking a lead on to map out suffering in the world. If you are interested in contributing to any of these activities, please contact me!