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Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life cheerfully engages this old question: What are the origins of our capacity for kindness? This work grew out of Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner’s postgraduate training with pioneering psychologist of the emotions Paul Ekman (co-author, with the Dalai Lama, of Emotional Awareness). As Keltner writes, recent “advances in DNA measurement, in archaeology, and in the study of our primate relatives are yielding striking new insights into the history of humanity… Embedded in these discoveries is an answer to the question of where our capacity for goodness comes from. Born to Be Good reveals how survival of the kindest may be just as fitting a description of our origins as survival of the fittest… Evolutionary science provides a context for understanding the origins of the positive emotions, where the smile comes from, why we are wired to trust and to care.” (Phillips and Taylor would encourage us to wonder: why is it that so many of us will be surprised at the emergence of scientific findings that suggest we are hard-wired for compassion and kindness?)
Key to Keltner’s thesis is what he calls “jen science,” a term inspired by Confucius. Jen is the central idea in Confucius’ teachings, says Keltner, “and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people… Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.” Keltner connects jen (which seems to be similar to the awakened heart of basic goodness in Buddhism) with Darwin’s careful analyses of the positive emotions of love, joy, and sympathy. “Contrary to what many may assume,” continues Keltner, “Darwin believed that these emotions were the basis of our moral instinct and capacity to be good.” Because of Darwin’s views of the origins of human goodness, Keltner confidently concludes: “Darwin and Confucius would have been very content collaborators.”
Another important collaborator in this cultural conversation is William James, whose late nineteenth-century thesis about the primary role of the body in our emotional life echoes the experiences of many practitioners of yoga through the centuries. “For James,” says Keltner, “the topography of emotion maps onto our viscera. Every subjective state, from political rage to spiritual rapture to contentment one feels at the sounds of children playing, is registered in its own distinct ‘bodily reverberation.’”
Ekman and his colleagues tested and confirmed James’ hypothesis in radically different cultures. Among diverse branches of the human family, the most relevant aspect of our human physiology is the autonomic nervous system, or ANS. According to Keltner, “James’ unusual thesis inspired other studies of the ANS—of the blush that sears the face, of tears, of goosebumps that ripple down the spine, of the swelling feeling in the chest. These studies reveal that our emotions, even those higher sentiments like sympathy and awe, are embodied in our viscera. As this line of inquiry shifted to the ethical emotions, emotions like embarrassment and compassion, a more radical inference waited on the horizon—that our very capacity for goodness is wired into our body.”
Like Confucius, Keltner wants to link this innate potential—the strong possibility of uncovering, celebrating, and cultivating an embodied warm-heartedness—with a vision of a more enlightened society. Each of the final eight chapters of his book explores the science of different positive emotions (love, laughter, compassion, awe, etc.) that form the basis of high “jen ratios.” Keltner defines this concept of his as “a simple but powerful way of looking upon the relative balance of good and uplifting versus bad and cynical in life,” and he looks at various nations through this lens. “High jen ratios,” he contends, “are proving to be a hallmark of healthy societies.” This view echoes the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index proposed in 1972 by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to promote a vision of society based on balancing spiritual and material development, instead of simply aiming at a higher yet less humanly satisfying Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the Royal Government of Bhutan, GNH is comprised of four pillars: economic self-reliance, environmental preservation, cultural promotion, and good governance. Keltner’s book was written in a kindred spirit; Born to Be Good offers a way, he says, “to think about the clues to happy marriages, well-adapted children, healthy communities and cultures.”
Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell recounts historical and first-hand stories of human behavior in the wake of a century of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, 9/11 in New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. For each, she meticulously documents the spontaneous arising of communities of solidarity marked by altruism and life-saving acts of compassionate bravery. She also details less noble acts. Throughout the book, Solnit demonstrates that she is keenly attuned to the powerful effects our beliefs about each other’s fundamental nature have on our actions. She says that in a disaster:
How you behave depends on whether you think your neighbors or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you… Often the worst behavior in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From earthquake-shattered San Francisco in 1906 to flooded New Orleans in 2005, innocents have been killed by people who believed or asserted that their victims were the criminals and that they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Beliefs matter.
Solnit’s thesis is that in the midst of tragic disasters, frequently we are offered a glimpse of the actual possibility of a community in paradise. There is a long tradition of social visions of utopia—a word that literally means “a good place”—but hers is startling. She asserts that a utopia can arise out of chaos, out of the suspension of the ordinary social order. She says:
Disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living. The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding… We need ties, but they, along with purposefulness, immediacy, and agency, also give us joy—the startling, sharp joy I found in accounts of disaster survivors. These accounts demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need—the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough—already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way… This social desire and social possibility go against the grain of the dominant stories of recent decades.
So, stories matter. They tell us who we are, what we are capable of, and that our present human social arrangements might be otherwise. Stories remind us that the current state of things is never an unchangeable fate. When we are nourished primarily on fast-food narratives of human possibility (“It’s every man for himself in a dog-eat-dog world.”), our vision and abilities to manifest a greater good are weakened and we fall into chronic despair from the failure to actively engage our human potential. As Thoreau says, all too often we live lives of “quiet desperation.”
These three books are a wake-up call, reminding us how vitally important naturally brave compassion is in our fearful era. As Solnit articulates her vision of an emergent possible future: “Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago… The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time—at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell? These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”
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