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Mindful : February 2017
Dacher Keltner cofounded the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in 2001 as a means to fos- ter science that could demonstrate the value of prosocial behavior: doing things for the common good. He laid down his core principles in his groundbreaking 2008 book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaning ful Life. At what point did the conviction that we are “born to be good” emerge for you? In the late 1980s, in psychology classes we started with the Darwin- ian basic assumption: the human nervous system is designed as a competitive, purely self-interested, gratification machine. But I would ask, why do I cheer up when someone acts on someone else’s behalf? As I looked into it, I came to find that Dar- win had been misrepresented by the evolutionary scholars that came after him. The later Darwin was persuaded by his experiences as a father and by seeing his own children die. He came to feel that “sympathy is our strongest instinct,” as he wrote in The Descent of Man. Finding that Darwin was a defining and eye-opening revelation. I became convinced that we need a sci- ence that shows we’re not necessarily purely self-interested, that other peo- ple matter a lot to us, that we’re not just competitive, that we cooperate enormously. Has research born out this early intuitive revelation? The data are overwhelming now. If you give people the choice to coop- erate or compete, and ask them to make a fast intuitive decision, they’ll cooperate most of the time. If you let people give resources to a stranger and all they are asked to give is a penny, instead they’ll give 40% of their resource. Also, what we’re learning about the vagus nerve is extremely revealing. It’s the largest bundle of nerves in the body, wind- ing its way around our heart and up into our face, and part of its function seems to be to help us care for others. When we cooperate, share, or express gratitude, reward circuits light up in the brain. We seem deeply committed to the welfare of others in the core of our being. The competitive-g ratifica- tion-machine model is highly ques- tionable to say the least. Why did you become an emotion researcher? It allowed me to pursue my instinct about who we really are through practical research. In 1989, when I was coming out of graduate school at Stanford, psychology was heavily focused on the cognitive. We knew very little about human emotion, the passions, nothing about compassion, gratitude, or beauty—the things I really cared about in my life. I had the good fortune to do post-doctoral work with a pioneer in the psycholog y of emotions, Paul Ekman, who studied emotion through facial expressions. I spent countless hours coding expres- sions, which taught me that emotion is a rich language of social life. From that moment on, I’ve studied modesty, embarrassment, compassion, g rati- tude, and more—the array of emotions that bind us to each other. What exactly is an emotion? In my field, we think of an emotion as a brief transient process that helps us achieve a social goal, like fairness, taking care of people in need, or avoiding danger. Those brief pro- cesses have an expressive element, a signal in the face or the voice or the body. They have other physiological components: chills, goose bumps, heart racing. Emotions aren’t irratio- nal. They embody judgments about the world that help us live our social lives. When you feel compassion, one of the emotions I’ve been most devoted to studying, your mind is cap- tured by the idea that there is harm and you need to attend to it. Yes, emo- tions are challenging and they need to be navigated with care, but our rich diet of emotions allows us to engage with others and to enjoy our world. It’s when we wall ourselves off from emotional connection in a cocoon of pure self-interest that we’re in danger of weakening the prosocial tendencies that hold the human world together. What are you most excited about now? I’m very much taken with awe, being in the presence of things greater than our individual selves, transcending the ideology of self-interest. I’ve bat- tled anxiety throughout my life and my older daughter has too. It keeps you away from the things you love. My daughter and I consistently find peace through awe. We backpack and suddenly nature runs through our nervous system and makes us happier and healthier. Our immune systems look better. I want to invest more in a budding partnership with the Sierra Club and Outward Bound to get peo- ple outdoors to experience awe—vet- erans, inner-city kids, nursing home patients, whoever needs it. It’s such a simple gift, something everyone already has that allows them to find peace and meaning. ● I’m really taken with awe, being in the presence of things greater than ourselves. It makes us happier and healthier. PHOTOGRAPHBYJIGARMEHTAFORTHEGREATERGOODSCIENCECENTER February 2017 mindful 59