- IONS Film Project
Publications Book Reviews
The Science of a Meaningful Life
Reviewed by Matthew Gilbert on Dec. 1, 2009
A newly released study published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues that such facial-emotional expressions as smiling are not learned social responses but originate from an “evolved, potentially genetic source and that all humans, regardless of gender or culture, are born with this ability.” This finding no doubt put a smile on the face of Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has devoted the better part of his professional life to disputing the scientific gospel that human beings are hardwired exclusively for selfish and survival-oriented behavior. Keltner calls this “only half the story,” and presents the other half in his new book, Born to Be Good. Here he asserts that because we are born with an innate capacity to experience such positive emotions as joy, compassion, and gratitude, we are equally hardwired to be sociable, cooperative, and naturally supportive of others, for “bringing the good in each other to completion.”
And in this belief Keltner is in good company, for as he explains in the book, no less an authority than Charles Darwin determined that there are continuities of facial expressions—and thus emotion— between animals and humans that reveal a reflexive social instinct with evolutionary purpose, finding that he presented in his best-selling book, Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals. His data were based on extensive observation of both humans and animals, including detailed descriptions of emotions both negative and positive.
In making his case, Keltner draws liberally, though not exclusively, from Eastern philosophy, in particular from the Confucian concept of jen. Confucius was the father of the Golden Rule (“never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”); jen—roughly translated as “human benevolence”—was considered the centerpiece of his philosophy. Keltner entwines the concept of jen with the scientific wizardry of neuroscience to come up with what he calls “jen science,” the study of pro-social emotions. As a growing body of research shows, life-affirming behaviors stimulate the immune system and the brain’s pleasure centers. And when one’s jen ratio is high—more positive emotions and actions than negative ones—one’s life starts to feel more meaningful.
Keltner makes it clear that the emphasis is not on achieving happiness—the only emotion that has been extensively studied up to this point. Happiness, he says, “is a diffuse term. It masks important distinctions between emotions such as gratitude, awe, contentment, pride, love, compassion, and desire—the focus of this book—as well as expressive behaviors such as teasing, touch, and laughter . . . By solely asking ‘Am I happy?’ we miss out on the many nuances of a meaningful life.”
And while Keltner acknowledges that humans have innate capacities for both altruistic and selfish behavior, to embrace another or club them over the head, he emphasizes the importance of our capacity to choose. In choosing “good” behaviors and actions over “bad,” he says, we catalyze not just our own well- being but also the good in others and ultimately contribute to a transformation in collective consciousness.
In addition to Darwin, Keltner names several other people who have influenced the development of scientific approaches to the study of human emotion. Among them is Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling, who proposed in his 1963 book, The Strategy of Conflict, that emotions are “involuntary commitment devices” binding people together in beneficial relationships. Keltner is especially grateful for the work of pioneering psychologist Paul Ekman, whose decades-long cross-cultural research on facial expression is credited by Keltner to have seeded a new field of study called affective science. Over time this research has found empirical support for three observations about emotions that apply to all human beings: (1) they represent our deepest commitments; (2) they are wired into our nervous systems; and (3) they underlie our ethical judgments and moral conscience.
Eschewing the purely empirical efforts of many laboratory researchers, Keltner asserted in a recent IONS teleseminar that “science is only as meaningful as the applications it leads to.” In the case of Born to Be Good, the science he speaks of has that potential, making a strong argument that while there will always be room for the fittest, social intelligence and “the survival of the kindest” may represent the ultimate evolutionary triumphs.