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Mindful : April 2014
against our own interests. (And in this context, self-interested do-gooding doesn’t count as altruism.) Seminal studies from Nancy Eisenberg and from Da niel Batson, published in the 1980s by the American Psychological Association, dem- onstrated that the empathic feelings generated by perceiving others’ suffering are indeed st rong enough to lead to genuine altruistic behavior. Acting “pro-socially”—for a good that t ra nscends our self-interest—is pa rt of who we a re. Social psychologist Dacher Keltner, cofounder of Greater Good, takes this idea further in Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In it, he explores Darwin’s little-known work on human emotions and argues that survival is not based on the fittest but on who among us is the kindest. All humans are born with bodily systems that are dedicated to forming long-term, mea ningful bonds— all in the spirit of cooperation, says Emilia na Simon- Thomas, Greater Good’s science director, who works closely with Keltner. “There’s a mountain of evidence showing we’re built in a way that makes it very easy for us to survive by working at a communal level,” Simon- Thomas says. “ We don’t look like lions and tigers. We’re pretty wimpy, we’re very smart, and we’re very, very social. That’s really a key capacity that has helped us be as successful as we have been as a species.” What has surprised Keltner, is discovering that there are ma ny ways to cultivate compassion. In his research, he frequently exa mines the role of the vagus nerve. “It’s a part of our nervous system that appears to track feelings of compassion and altru- ism,” Keltner says. “The vagus nerve starts at the top of the spinal cord and is the largest bundle of nerves in the body and is unique to mammals,” Keltner says. “It’s → “There’s a mountain of evidence that shows we’re built to survive by working at a communal level.” Emiliana Simon-Thomas April 2014 mindful 55