Dacher Keltner – Born to Be Good

April 03, 2009

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.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 3rd, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. And at the grassroots. My guest this week is Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and also director of the Greater Good Science Center and coeditor of Greater Good magazine. His research focuses on prosocial emotions, power and moral reasoning. And he’s on the show to talk with me about his new book, Born to Be Good The Science of a Meaningful Life. Dacher Keltner, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

God, it’s great to be here. 

T.J., to start off, Professor. Let’s get into your background a little. How does a scientist at UC Berkeley end up focusing his research on things like smiling and laughter and happiness or all these emotions that you’re writing about in Born to be Good? 

Well, I have a deep debt of gratitude to Charles Darwin and Charles Darwin when he started to write about human beings after his first book, The Origin of Species wrote a couple of critical books. One is The Descent of Man in 1871, and he made the claim that a lot of your listeners may not be aware of that. Sympathy is actually our strongest evolved instinct. Mm hmm. And then in 1872, he quickly followed that book up with the expression of emotion in man and animals. And what Darwin did there is a stunning scientific act, which is that he took a look at all the different sort of moment by moment behaviors you see today, a pat on the back, a little laugh, a smile, a shoulder shrug, a pucker of the lips. And he said those behaviors tell us what the conditions were of our deep evolution as primates that gave rise to who we are today. So what that tells us, Deejay’s, that the emotions are really the greatest clues to why we have been designed as we have and how we adjust to our environment. 

But you somehow get from the universality of these facial expressions that Darwin and Paul Ekman get into. You go from there to this science of a meaningful life, right? 

Right. Well, you know, and I do that in a couple of ways. One is that, you know, many of your listeners are probably aware of Paul Ekman and their well-known studies of all of the negative emotions and how their universal anger and fear and sadness and the like. But what we know is that the meaningful life, the life that we feel grateful about, that that really adds up to something in the long haul. It’s also based on a set of emotions like gratitude and compassion and play and all that have been under appreciated that Darwin described. And that was really a great scientific opportunity for me as to take the Darwinian approach of looking at moment by moment expressions and starting to ask how do these emotions that science has established as being related to well-being shape what our lives are like? 

You’re talking about compassion and all. And, you know, kindness to others. Those are things that religions tell us we should be like. That the way to be happy is to be kind to others. Why are you looking to science? To find out this obvious thing, that compassion is a key to happiness rather than just taking religions word for it? 

Well, I guess for a couple of reasons. One is, you’re absolutely right, T.J., when you consult the great spiritual traditions, as the religious historian Karen Armstrong did in serving the growth of religious and spiritual thought. Some twenty five hundred years ago, she arrived at this idea that compassion and empathy and treating brothers as your own, as as like yourself is a great religious or spiritual insight. But one of the reasons that I turned to science is when I surveyed a lot of Western thought post the great spiritual development. This is people like Emmanuel Contin, Sigmund Freud and I ran. You see tremendous skepticism toward these emotions that I’m interested in. Kahn said that compassion is a weak and misguided emotion. I in R&D said that, you know, that we have to really reject the morality of altruism. And so I really turned to science as a way to describe the deeper foundations of these emotions as a way to counter what I see as a bias against these emotions. 

You’re disagreeing with homo economicus. You’re you’re saying that. Yes, maybe. You know, our nature has the capacity to be bad, but it also has the capacity to be good. We’re wired to be good at the same time. 

Absolutely. Thanks for bringing that up. You know, when when you look at a simple act like altruism, the prevailing wisdom in a lot of scientific disciplines and that includes psychological science and evolutionary thought and economic thought, is really, as you said, is summed up nicely in homo economicus. And Homo economicus is in these disciplines thought to be our latest stage of. Evolution and that hominid is wired for self-interest. Always interested in gratifying desires is competitive and vigilant to danger as a default. And so within that scientific frame, the simple acts of altruism you see on a daily basis, the prevalent cooperation you see out in, you know, in the city streets, that 30 percent of Americans who volunteer on a regular basis. All of those acts from that point of view are selfish. And so what I thought was guided by Darwin and this understanding of emotions like compassion, maybe we can start to show that we actually have compassion built into our brains, in our nervous systems, in our genes, as a way to sort of refine our understanding of who we are. 

In your book, you talk a lot about what you called the gene ratio, which comes from the secular, the non-religious philosopher Confucius. You talk about the Djenne ratio as a way to think about happiness. Explain to me what it is and why it figure so prominently in this science book. 

Yeah, what it what a terrific question. That was something that I really struggled with. You know, so, you know, there is a really rich and and expansive literature now on the science of happiness. And, you know, scientists are asking people around the world, millions of them now, are you happy? And we always ask ourselves that question. And in many ways, it’s the most important question we ask. And we know that money doesn’t matter that much. That relationships matter. And so as I grappled with how emotions like compassion and gratitude and taking joy in other people’s virtues, I’m trying to figure out what is the what is the core spirit of those emotions. Right. And we know that those emotions really add up to the meaningful life on the long haul that we here at Earth on Earth. And I turn to Confucius. Thanks to my dad, who had always encouraged me to read Eastern philosophy since I was a teenager. And Confucius had this great idea of Chan or Ren. And it’s very simply to bring the good in others to completion. And that’s what these emotions that I study do. 

And so then I converted that to a really simple ratio to guide people to think about whether they’re happy or not. And in the numerator of the ratio on top, you just think about the actions in which you’ve brought out the good and others in the denominator in the bottom. You think about, you know, the frustrated ways he may have brought out the bad in others. And that tells you, you know, the bigger the score you’re bringing out, the the brighter side, the humans, which I think is the most direct path to happiness. 

So for you, happiness is really all about bringing out the best in others. 

I do. And, you know, there have been great surveys like Darren McMahons, Wonderful History of Happiness recently. You know what happiness means so many different things. It can mean virtuous acts in Greek thought. It can mean communion with God in the Middle Ages, in Christian civilizations. It can mean hedonism for many. But for me, it really, you know. 

And this may reflect who I am and who Charles Darwin was and who others their own characters that line up with. My thinking is, is that it really is and is bringing out the good in others. 

Professor, you are appealing to Confucius in Eastern philosophy. Why don’t you draw much on the Western monotheisms? Could you get the same reasons to be good, the same path to happiness from Western religions that you’re getting, from science and from Eastern philosophy? 

You can you know, there’s no doubt. 

And for your listeners who are interested in a broader perspective, they really should read Karen Armstrong, for example, The Great Transformation. You know, it really is quite striking there. She argues that about 2500 years ago, in a cultural moment, much like today, where people were worried about materialism and they were worried about the violence between tribes and nations. A lot of people started developing these spiritual forms of knowing that emphasized equality, treating others with respect, gratitude, compassion. And lo and behold, it turns out Charles Darwin, in his own evolutionary analysis, was driving a very similar view about the fabric of a strong social group that it’s built on these emotions, but without any appeal to the supernatural, right? 

That’s right. Of course. And that led to a great deal of suffering on his part and conflicts with his wife, Emma. And the reason, you know, that I appeal to Eastern thought is that’s what I was raised in. 

To be quite frank. And that’s what I’ve always turned to. Late at night, when I’m seeking to soothe my soul, is the Daoism and the Buddhism and Confucianism. But I think, as Karen Armstrong argues, these are old ideas, common to ways of knowing that are actually built into our nervous system. 

You mentioned Daoism, certain kinds of Buddhism, Confucianism, all three are non theistic. Yeah. You don’t have kind of a belief in the supernatural or a God, but still you derive this meaning from it. And this book is kind of a synthesis of that and the the hard science you’re doing in the lab. Speaking of the hard science. Tell me about this famous study that you did looking at a woman’s smile and her 1960 yearbook and what it predicted about how happy she was going to be in life. 

Yeah, well, this one, you know, this one kind of got me going into the field to certain extent. 

So, you know, there’s a researcher at UC Berkeley named Ravana Health in and I think she’s 84 now and she’s an inspiring person, one of the most productive people in our department. And she had the foresight to start studying women’s lives in 1960. Well, she’s she’s been studying these same women. Hundred and ten or so who graduated from Mills College for about 45 years. It’s the longest study of women’s lives in the world, and it’s just a remarkable study. And so one day she popped by and she said, you know, well, Dacher, you know, you study facial expression. I have these yearbook photos of these women and we have all these wonderful data. Maybe the face and the warmth of your smile says something about what your life will be like. And I was incredulous and didn’t believe it. But what I did is I coded these facial expressions with LeAnn Harker and all we did deejay’s, we coded to muffle the zygomatic major, pulled the lip corners up, and then the critical mass of the orbicularis oculi which surrounds the eyes. And when it contracts, it gives you lower eyelid pouching crow’s feet, which are actually a clear sign of joy and happiness. And when that smile moves, we know people are happy. The left side of their frontal lobes is active. It’s a really reliable indicator of happiness and connection. 

That’s a real smile. You when your eyes smile, it’s not jeda that enjoy as many notes in the eyes. 

And so, you know, taking a look at these data, to be quite frank, I was stunned. 

The warmer the woman’s smile in 1960, for the next 30 years, the woman is less prone to stress and anxiety on a daily basis. She’s feeling more connected to people around her. People around her feel greater trust and connection. She is increasingly accomplishing her life goals. As she progresses through Middle Ages. And then the kicker is she is reporting greater well-being and greater happiness in her marriage. Thirty years later. 

Well, so is the solution something out of William James, which is if you’re unhappy, just smile and you’ll become happy? Or is this just something that’s predictive but can’t can’t actually, you know, change things? 

I mean, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? You know, so. And I think the answer, as science often suggests, is both. Which is part of this story of this study is what we are tapping into. 

There is a warm temperament, someone who takes joy in being in others. And that was one of the first studies that says, boy, there are a lot of cumulative benefits to being warm and outward oriented, sort of high, Jen, if you will, and the Confucianist term. And so part of that’s the story. That study is temperament. But another part which you’re hinting at. And I really think it’s important is a lot of these emotional behaviors that we study in our lab. You know, the smile, the warm pat on the back, the laugh at the moment of conflict at the family dinner table, wrestling with your kids. 

Those are also skills that you can cultivate. And that is another way that we can cultivate the meaningful life is by by developing a set of practices that are rooted in these these wonderful emotions. Mm hmm. 

Dacher, your big push in the book is how fleeting all of these emotions are. You know, the things that lead to happiness. They don’t really last in an individual way, that happiness isn’t long bouts of joy. But it’s a collection of these really brief emotional states. Yeah. So is it just a matter of collecting as many of those as you can get during a day? Or is it a temperament thing? 

Well, what a terrific question. I hadn’t really thought about that. But I love that. 

So what we know empirically, T.J., is that if I want to know at the end. The day, whether you you’re happy or not, whether you feel like you’ve had a meaningful day, I think your phrasing is correct, which is that it really amounts to the sum of all these high Djenne co-operative emotions like love and gratitude and on laughter and joking around. That’s just the raw substance of happiness. Now, the irony and a lot of philosophers have commented on this, and as you rightly point out, is, well, life’s complex. This part of the story of happiness is rooted in these emotions. Is it’s ever so evanescent and fleeting. And, you know, various philosophers, you know, in particular in the Eastern tradition, have written about how things pass. They’re temporary, but they come back. And I think that is a very reassuring statement about happiness, that it comes and goes. That we can build it. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Born to Be Good The Science of a Meaningful Life through our website Point of inquiry dork Dacher. 

Here you are, a scientist studying happiness, how to scientifically measure it in others. Does that sometimes kind of mess with your mind like you’re always on the lookout for indicators of others unhappiness? You know, you’re looking at your wife’s face and reading into a little twitch of her eye to really figure out what’s going on. 

Oh, my goodness. You know too much about me. 

So, you know, deejayed the science in this book on laughter and smiling and the smiles of desire and Lust versus Long-Term Love are founded in this great scientific methodology that Paul Ekman developed based on Charles Darwin. And it’s where he developed through seven years of research, a coding system that allows you to identify every visible facial muscle movement. And then young scientists like myself and I, as a postdoc with Paul Ekman in his lab, learn this coding system. It takes 100 hours and then we apply it in analyzing other people’s facial expressions and tones of voices eventually and how their bodies are moving. 

Right. This is the basis of that great show on TV. Lie to me. 

Right. Exactly right. You know, and that was the other line of Paul’s research. Publican’s research is lying. Well, when young scientists like myself, young, impressionable beings learn this system, suddenly they go out into the world. 

And, my God, you see you see things that you didn’t see before. You see the woman serving you and she sneers at you because you haven’t bathed in too long a time. You see somebody flirting with your wife and you say, hey, you know, I’m onto you guys. 

But so it does it does mess mess with your mind, if you will. 

And you know, and point out things that we may have missed before sometimes isn’t happiness kind of the bliss of ignorance, you know, knowing too much leads to unhappiness? 

Yeah. But I’ll go back to William James, who you cited very nicely earlier. And, you know, he had this idea that our bodies are full of wisdom in our physiological reactions. Are stress reactions are I study the vagus nerve, which is a bodily reaction that promotes compassion and caring. And I like your citation of James, because James felt that that it’s really important to be attuned to our emotions and to use them as guides in treating other people in fairway’s or finding things that are meaningful to yourself. So I think we need, even though it sometimes leads to insights we might not find favorable. I think it’s important to know what our emotions are. Hmm. 

You say some things in the book that at least on my first read, seemed a little backward. One on the one hand, that these fleeting, positive emotions are what counts in terms of a person’s happiness. But on the other hand, that emotions like embarrassment or, you know, being teased are also good things that we share that we should have more of. Don’t people have too much shame, though, that leads to unhappiness and teasing being bullied? That can’t possibly lead to happiness. 

The easier case for the argument that I make really pertains to emotions like love and gratitude and compassion. Right. Or even a sense of reverence or laughter. How how could those be bad? Although I will say, you know, we need to continually cultivate them as we move through life because life gets busy and we miss out on those opportunities. The harder the harder case and I’ve encountered some resistance to this is you know, I’ve done a lot of research on embarrassment, for example, which feels very painful to the self. And I’ve made the case that it’s actually good for relationships because much as other mammals do, we resort to reconciliation or appeasement processes to bring about forgiveness and to to smooth over conflicts in our lives. And that’s what embarrassment does for people is. We signal this very ancient sign of appeasement by turning our head and showing our neck and showing the smile to prompt forgiveness and trust in others. When we’ve done things that are inappropriate. 

What about teasing has got lead to happiness. 

That one’s that one’s even trickier. But here’s here’s the argument. You know, one of the things I hope your listeners don’t quickly conclude is, you know, here’s this guy up in Berkeley sitting in a hot tub talking about the beauties of odd compassion. 

Now, you should know I don’t own a hot tub. 

And I think evolution has created a much more complex species. And one of the things that we know from an evolutionary point of view is that all relationships are defined not only by cooperation, but by conflicts of interests. Right. Be it romantic partners, people in hierarchies, people at work, young siblings figuring out who they are and how they’re different from their older sibling. Conflict is built into the human condition, and it often drives us crazy and into despair. What I argue with teasing is that a lot of mammals have evolved ritualized ways in which they playfully act aggressively to sort out their differences. And it’s a much more favorable alternative than to engaging in direct violence and killing each other. And I think Keesing is just like that. So a good analogy is there are studies of coyotes as they form social groups and figure out how to behave around each other and how not to be aggressive. 

And they do a lot of rough and tumble play and a lot of playful biting. And gradually they learn the rules of how to be group members. Right. 

They learn their place in the social hierarchy. 

Exactly. And they learn how not to buy to violently, how to how to cooperate, how to coordinate their behavior with others. Well, teasing, just like that teasing is a little bit like a playful bite for playful provocation. And the emphasis is on playful, right. Teasing recruits, all these amazing things that we can do. You know, we do funny facial expressions. We look like gestures. We imitate people. We use our voice. And it’s amazing bandwidth to, you know, slow down sounds or to speak in strange intonation. And we show that we’re not being serious, but we are actually commenting on something that could be a source of conflict. And a lot of the studies that we’ve done show, you know, couples when they’re negotiating a conflict, if they resort to teasing rather than direct criticism, they’re doing better. Kids who can tease really effectively and social groups, you know, just sort of making light of the difficulties of group living are actually respected more by their peers. A lot of data. You know, and if you study a playground. Yeah. They’re they’re regretable rare episodes of bullying. And that’s really that’s a different kind of behavior. It’s more about violence. But if you study the patterns of lighthearted teasing, what you inevitably find is close friends expressing affection. 

So teasing can lead to happiness. 

It is. And in fact, in one study, you know, to get to the proof is in the pudding. And you’re asking the critical question. 

We had kids at a baseball camp and we structured a little exercise that they’re doing. These are 14 year olds or so. And in one condition, they’re playing this competitive game. But they had to cheer each other on. And in the air condition, we had them kind of tease each other. And the guys who teach each other actually beat were more likely to become friends. 

Dacher, you talk about touching in your backyard. You really talk about all kinds of subjects. One touching that certain kinds of touching actually release a cascade of certain chemicals in the brain like opioids or oxytocin, and that these chemicals lead to feelings of well-being, of happiness. You’re not just talking about sexual kinds of touching. So touching is one of the biggest ways to show compassion. This is part of the argument you’re building. Let me ask you. Maybe it’s kind of a personal question, but do you do you get regular massages? Is that a component to happiness or like labor? Scalia suggested decades ago that we should always, you know, be hugging each other all the time. 

Well, you know, I don’t get regular massages, although the massages I’ve received have been amazing and speak to the virtues as touch. But I should say, you know, one of the wonderful things just on the personal side in doing the research on touch is it gave me this lens into how much touch is a fabric of my more meaningful happy days and cooperative relationships wrestling with my kids, you know, actually. Playing pickup basketball, where there’s a lot of touch seeing friends at school and patting them on the back. 

Yeah, yea. When you mentioned basketball, you’re talking about like the male bonding kind of touch that even when you’re playing an aggressive game, you’re patting each other. Fist bump banger, you know. Exactly. Swatting each other on the took us back. 


You know the touch is everywhere and and then there’s this you know what I think to be a miraculous science of touch that that really provides. You know, back to your earlier question of why do this? Well, it gives this this deep neurochemical chemical insight into why touch is so foundational to co-operative societies. And so what we know, you know, and you sort of started to summarize it is if you get a nice pat on the back, it activates the overall frontal cortex region that processes rewards in your brain. It leads to the release of oxytocin, which is a little neuropeptide your listeners have probably heard about floats through your brain and bloodstream. And it makes you trust other people. It activates part of the body. I study called the vagus nerve, which is a bundle of nerves. It starts at the top of your spinal card, influences, vocalization, heart rate, your immune response. It calms me down. Associate it with feelings of connection. A nice touch stimulates activation that nerve. And so given that we’ve started to document this, what you find is healthy patterns of touch increase premature babies, birth weight, 47 percent. They build up cooperation and outspokenness in classrooms. They’re about 80 studies of touch therapies in hospitals where patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, their depressive symptoms drop. If they’re regularly touched and get the touch, it is a very foundation of a cooperative relationship. Mm hmm. 

Well, you’ve sold me on the touch thing. The components that you’re talking about, that you say science is telling us leads to a meaningful life, smiling, showing compassion, touching, playfully, teasing all the stuff you cover. Not only is the stuff hardwired in us by evolution, but for some people, don’t we need to lubricate the wiring, lubricate the gears? Mixed metaphor. I know. In other words, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Not everyone is born happy. Born good. Not everyone finds it easy to be. You have kind of a smiling disposition. Show compassion. Touch others, you know. Some people just don’t like to be touched. 

For instance, it’s interesting. And, you know, on a personal note, I was actually a extremely anxious little guy, you know, as a young kid growing up. And I was lucky to have a family background. And, you know, that had a lot of affection from parents and a socialization that allowed me to find my own interests and find dear friends. In a really early on, my parents got me to start cultivating more hij and tendencies in my life about being cooperative and smiling and laughing at the device difficulties in developing a sense of the absurd and being foolish and all these things. I write it up and, you know, I take a lot of heart in a new science that is doing the hard work of of asking whether we can can cultivate these tendencies. Right. Can we make people more grateful? Well, for example, Sony Liberal Hirschi, Mike McCullough, a lot of scientists are getting people to engage in Count Your Blessings exercises where you know about once a week you get people to write about something that they’re grateful for. And lo and behold, it gives them a very measurable boost in health and well-being. Can you cultivate compassion? Well, it turns out, you know, the great ways of knowing that we’ve talked about earlier, we’re really onto something. And there are a lot of new studies showing if I meditate on kindness toward others, if I read about moral exemplars, people like, you know, Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Jesus or whatever, I become more compassionate and altruistic. Can you cultivate forgiveness? Yes, he can. You know, you can do these forgiveness exercises that someone like Fred Luskin has written about. And, you know, did you I I think a lot of heart in the fact that our nervous system is very plastic and a lot of the regions that we talk about, like the orbital frontal cortex of the vagus nerve, are quite subject to practice and. Environmental input. And I think the data are pointing to a real optimistic path about, you know, shaping our minds and our bodies in this direction. 

So even if you’re not born good, you could be made good. There is neuroplasticity. There are other ways to kind of change our nervous system. 

Absolutely. And even if you take you know, if you take the physiological profile of one of the most well studied temperamental characteristics. 

Right. Which is the really anxious kid, which is what I was like as a kid, we know about a quarter of those kids shift dramatically over the course of their childhood. They become outgoing and at ease with with social socializing and alike. So the question is, is how do you do that work? Right. And I think the kinds of emotions that I write about are one important purchase upon that problem and that they could be cultivated. 

You and your book with the discussion of the evolutionary basis of all. And how that’s a component of this meaningful life of the happiness you’re talking about. If you want to cultivate. Or is it just like you go to the Grand Canyon, you feel your insignificance at the same time you feel this significance. What should everybody, you know, go through Carl Sagan’s cosmos again? 

I suspect I’d be a good one for you. 

Yeah, a lot of evolutionists have been interested in something that actually Darwin was interested in, which is this higher order kind of emotion, rapture or are ecstasy where we own it? It’s a little paradoxical, but where we feel, you know, in our thinking that you’re in the presence of something that is really great and designed and that really dwarfs the self and self interest. Right. And one of the great things about studying Oz we do is and to get to your question is that there really many kinds of. All right. For many people, it’s spiritual experience. For other people, it’s being at a political rally and putting up their fist in unison with their their compatriots. For other people, it’s the esthetics. It’s listening to an opera or or looking at a painting by a Dutch master. For myself, it’s nature. It’s like John Muir. I write about in a chapter of, you know, getting out into the mountains. And suddenly there are these natural patterns around it. It just is down here. And that really was the case for Charles Darwin. And you know what we’re learning and it’s back to your previous question about how do we start to cultivate these high Janša emotions that put us in the direction of a meaningful life. We are learning that of something that you can readily cultivate. You know, when they put in beautiful nature seeds or green settings in urban areas, the citizens became calmer. They became more able to reflect upon their life. When students see images of art, certain regions of the brain light up that really potentiator make more likely experiences of caring and compassion. And we find that in our own own work as well, that these feelings of all give you a sense of a bigger purpose in the self. And the way you get there is through many paths, probably particular to who you are. 

So if there are many paths, your path or the one that you’re pushing is the scientific one. You’re talking about the science of a meaningful life. You mentioned earlier how you’re heartened that there is this science of happiness and real research being done on how to cultivate happiness in people. Do you think that more and more scientists are going to be taking on this job that’s been traditionally kind of handed over to the ministers and the rabbis and the like? In other words, is this science of happiness going to be something that budding young scientists are going to specialize in kind of as a career track? 

When before you left all these existential questions and meaning of life questions to the religionists deejayed the the science of happiness and the science of cultivating meaning is not only something that’s on the horizon, it’s it’s spreading like wildfire right now. You know, a lot of the popular courses on campuses right now are courses on happiness or wellbeing or the emotions or or meaning and narrative. So it is spreading like wildfire. Now, what scientists do, which is really different and it’s obvious, is we don’t commit what’s called a naturalistic fallacy, which is we say this is what is this is the you know, the the pro social nervous system and this is how you should behave or this is how you should live. But what I hope it points to the science of meaningfulness. 

Let me just jump in there. You’re talking about not committing the naturalistic fallacy. You’ve written a book on how to live a meaningful life. In other words, you’re saying science tells us this is the best way to to behave to to cultivate these prosocial behaviors and have these positive emotions in our lives. It’s kind of seems like is this field develops, it’s going to give religion a run for its money. 

Well, yeah. 

I mean, I you know, well, first of all, you know, with respect to my book, a few people have faulted me for not being prescriptive enough and saying, here’s your eight step path to happiness. I just disagree with that philosophically. I think it’s your own exercise. It’s really a pursuit of happiness is something that is situated in your family and your culture and your your own mind. And what we can do as scientists is we can say, look, there are these rather malleable but focused emotions like all which we’ve been talking about, our gratitude or laughter. They can get you there. But how you do it is really up to you. But, yeah, I think I think you’re right, T.J. I think that as this science progresses and it’s already making good progress and we learn about things like forgiveness and compassion and equality, it is going to be a platform for how people choose to live and how they find guidance and answering to the big questions in life. And I think that’s a good thing to finish up. 

Dacher, tell me about Greater Good magazine and the greater good science center in the Bay Area. You’re you’re the director of it. 

Well, Greater Good magazine is part of the Greater Good Science Center, which is at UC Berkeley. It’s an interdisciplinary center. And our mission is really to fill or feed a hunger that you were referring to just in your previous observation, which is that I think we’re in a moment in our culture’s history where a lot of people are seeking answers about happiness that are beyond materialism, beyond the rat race and looking for new ideas. And along came the science that we’ve been talking about for our time together that provide some interesting ways to reflect on happiness. And so what we do with the magazine greater good is we take this new science of altruism and compassion and forgiveness and art and esthetics. And we we write really compelling, rigorous, accessible essays alongside personal narrative that translate that material for the intelligent audience. Mm hmm. And then as well, at our center, we have a really popular parenting blog by Christine Carter Page in Sociology, where she takes the same science. Right. How to teach kids to play or how not to be perfectionists. And translates it to this blog half full. And again, it gives parents on the move a little scientific nuggets of wisdom about what science says about how to raise more cooperative kids or kids who are generous. So it’s been really gratifying and it’s growing and spreading this word. 

If you’d like more information about greater good magazine or the Greater Good Science Center or that blog, you can find it through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Dacher Keltner. I really appreciate the discussion. Thanks so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Well, D.J., I really appreciate your thoughtful question. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. 

Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.