Dacher Keltner is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, director of the Greater Good Science Center, and coeditor of Greater Good magazine. His research focuses on the prosocial emotions, such as love, sympathy and gratitude, and processes such as teasing and flirtation that enhance bonds. He has conducted empirical studies in three areas of inquiry: the determinants and effects of power, hierarchy and social class; the morality of everyday life, and how we negotiate moral truths in teasing, gossip, and other reputational matters; and the biological and evolutionary basis of the benevolent affects, including compassion, awe, love, gratitude, and laughter and modesty. His new book is Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Dacher Keltner explores the evolutionary origins of human goodness, challenging the view that humans are hardwired to pursue self-interest and to compete. Based on his studies of human emotion, he argues instead that survival is not a matter of who is the fittest, but perhaps who is the kindest — that people may have compassion built into their brains, nervous systems, and genes. He talks about the influence of Charles Darwin on his work studying human emotions. He elaborates on Darwin’s position that sympathy is our strongest evolved instinct, and what everyday behaviors such as smiling, shrugging, and hand-shakes tell us about the conditions of our deep evolution as primates. He talks about how he is taking the Darwinian approach of looking at moment by moment expressions of emotion and asking how these emotions shape a meaningful life. He explains why he looks to science, as well as to secular Eastern philosophy such as Confucianism, for answers about a meaningful life, rather than to Western religions. He describes his concept of the Jen ratio, and how it relates to the neuroscience of happiness. And he explains what the scientific study of positive emotions and activities such as smiling, laughter, teasing, touching, love, gratitude and awe may suggest about happy marriages, well-adapted children, and healthy communities.