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.
His 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.
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.
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?
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.
A 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.