Home All Is It a Dog-Eat-Dog World, or Are We Born to Be Good? A Book Review

Is It a Dog-Eat-Dog World, or Are We Born to Be Good? A Book Review

written by Sherri Fisher 5 March 2009

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Dog Eat Dog World Thomas Hobbes famously described life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In contrast, Dacher Keltner describes life as the “survival of the kindest.” His new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, presents the evidence that humans have evolved positive emotions to build meaning and relationships and have moved ever toward goodness.In this wonderfully engaging work, Keltner takes the reader on time travel across seemingly wide dimensions of human experience and culture.

born to be goodHis interdisciplinary approach gives nods to thinkers from Charles Darwin to Paul Ekman to Martin Seligman to Jonathan Haidt. Through studies of animal behavior, anthropology and psychology, Keltner brings a broader and deeper understanding that positive emotions, pro-social behavior and embarrassment (more on this later) are surely encoded in our DNA, and that these adaptations over millennia have made possible our great and continuing success as a species, Bernie Madoff to the contrary.

Jen ratioWhat is Jen?

Keltner borrows from Buddhism the concept of the “Jen ratio” shown to the left. In the moments when we defer to others (the numerator), realizing our wrongdoing and momentary lapses of kindness (the denominator), we build our relationships and ultimately the meaning in our lives. Thus the higher the Jen ratio, the better our relationships and the more meaning in our lives.

Affiliation While Keltner acknowledges what he calls “cooperation costs”—that we might be exploited by the very people to whom we show respect—he makes a strong case that human evolution has adapted us for integrity, honesty, kindness, and trustworthiness, the very character traits we value in close social interactions.

What Are the FACS?
Dog Smile If you are a cynic that’s ok—read on. In the first part of the book, Keltner establishes rigorous empirical support for his argument that the positive emotions have evolved and are evident across all cultures in the form of facial expressions. Paul Ekman’s FACS (Facial Action Coding System), has mapped our expressions onto our emotions, showing that movements of our facial muscles activate the parasympathetic nervous system (see guest article, Balance and Health).You might think of the negative emotions first (anger makes the blood rush and anxiety makes the heart pound), but positive emotions also “map onto our viscera” according to Eckman’s research. What Jonathan Haidt calls our moral intuition evolved to protect our relationships and communities. It is biological and adaptive, not merely a fleeting cultural artifact.

Got the D-Smile?

In the middle of Born to Be Good, the reader is introduced to Ekman’s research involving the mechanism behind the Duchenne smile and Keltner’s application of these findings.  This form of smiling—distinguished by the combined action of both the zygomatic and orbicularisoculi muscles—happens  spontaneously and concurrently with enjoyment, and it is significantly connected to well-being.

Duchenne SmileA famous application of this research is the yearbook study (Harker and Keltner, 2001) which found that positive emotional expression in women’s yearbook photos, as marked by the Duchenne smile, predicted favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being for participants up to 30 years later.  Keltner calls the D-smile “social chocolate” and asserts it shows cooperative intent. It is, accordingly, directly related to high Jen ratios and the meaningful life. (Here’s my D-smile. I hope you have taken a peek into the mirror, or looked at your driver’s license photo by now to see if you have “it”.)

Should You Read the Book?

Do you want to know the difference between nervous laughter and cooperative, affiliative laughter and the many benefits of the latter? Do you enjoy reading humorous applications of otherwise dry science via a romp through history, the arts, and literature?  This is the least serious-minded book to enter the Positive Psychology canon while at the same time having a very broad reach. It introduces the “meaning” pillar with aplomb. What it does not do is tell you how to apply the research—tons of it, with many pictures and diagrams—to your own life, as many other Positive Psychology books do. But you will leave this book laughing (what other science book includes such words as “noogie”?), smiling, and feeling better for having read it.

Notes from the Author:

Need help applying the research? Try a MAPP/PPND Coach!
Need help understanding dogs? Photos are my puppies Clare (the toothy one) and Tucker (the smiling one) and, of course, me.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. & Davidson, R. (1990). The Duchenne Smile: Emotional Expression and Brain Physiology II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 342-353.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Harker, L. & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of Positive Emotion in Women’s College Yearbook Pictures and Their Relationship to Personality and Life Outcomes Across Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80 (1), 112-124.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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Angus Skinner 5 March 2009 - 2:11 pm

I love it Sherri. What was it Chris Peterson said – if you want unconditional love talk to your dog.

But John Lennon was right – love is the only way forward. And the final balance sheet is love, not money.

The Buddha argued that we should not become attached. Love inevitably invovles pain, sadness. But that does not make it wrong. Great though the Buddha was I think he was wrong in this. Attachment, love is the most creative energy.

I really like the Jen ratio. I wonder if this could be mapped against the B-C links?

EH – what does ‘noogie’ mean?
Best aye

Sherri Fisher 5 March 2009 - 3:31 pm

Hello, My Dancing Friend Angus!

There is a world of slang we must share since the Scots have plenty of good’ns.

Wikipedia says this: “Noogie
Sometimes called a Dutch Rub, Monkey Scrub or Russian Haircut, noogies are performed by placing the victim in a headlock and using the middle knuckles of the fore and middle fingers to cause friction by rubbing them across the surface of the skull quickly and firmly.”

I agree that love is the answer, and Keltner does not disagree about its value. There is a great quote in the book from Woody Allen (how many sciency books have those??) about love and pain. Keltner is making a case, however, for the mapping of socially valued expression on our faces onto our emotions and thus our behavior. He says this is a set of adaptations that are evolutionarily based. Yes, there would be B-C links.

This is a fun read, and while chock-a-block with science, it has a nice breezy feel. I really enjoyed it and it sparked my creativity (top strength, here)to think about applications of the research for teaching and coaching people. Thank Kathryn for turning my fraction into a graphic.


Senia Maymin 5 March 2009 - 6:00 pm


Delightful review – you’ve definitely made me want to read the book, and no, I’d never heard of the Jen Ratio. Some of the most interesting and counter-intuitive research these days is about the benefits of positive emotions. I love it!

Much thanks, SUPERB pics!

🙂 Senia

Phil Merry 6 March 2009 - 1:32 am

Hi Sherri – Greetings from Singapore – another great review – you write so well. i never heard of the Jen ratio and it really adds a lot to my understanding. i also like the thought that positive emotions are biological and adaptive – our “moral intuition”. Many thanks – Phil Merry

Sherri Fisher 6 March 2009 - 6:49 am

Hi, Senia-
Yes, do read this book. The Jen Ratio broadens the way we can think about the Losada Line, for example. It’s a messier collection of emotions and behavior than a neatly, mathematically modeled one, like Losada. Just the same, there are millions of years of evolutionary evidence to support the Jen Ratio.


WJ 6 March 2009 - 3:05 pm


I suspect that my Jen ratio is really high when I’m around my dogs.

One reason for this is that dogs activate the calming response (as does meditation). See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=438.

I might have to call my next dog Jen

Sherri Fisher 6 March 2009 - 4:39 pm

Hi, Phil-
I saw a video clip of you being interviewed on TV. It’s fun to put a face to your name!

Moral intuition is one of my favorite PP topics and it’s great for helping to coach folks who think other people do things to them “on purpose” instead of because they believe, at a gut level, that they are right, too.

I’m glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for the thumbs up about the writing. I appreciate it, and appreciate hearing from you!


Sherri Fisher 6 March 2009 - 4:46 pm

Hi, Wayne-
My dogs are named Clare (Irish for famous) and Tucker (Australian slang for what’s in your picnic bag and English slang for sweet treats). They are well-named as these match their personalities! If you name your dog Jen, what do you think she would be like?

Dogs make us better people as well as happier–my theory!


WJ 6 March 2009 - 6:17 pm

Sherri – Jen would be like all dogs – they bring the best out in most people and provide people with excuses to do the right thing eg talking to people you would never normally talk to or showing a bit of unconditional love.

We have an old english sheep dog puppy who are renowned for being clowns – I can’t help but smile to myself whenever I look at her.

And yes she likes her tucker


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