Born to Be Good
Born to Be Good is something less than the subtitle (The Science of a Meaningful Life) suggests. More accurately, it covers the science of certain selected emotions and, more narrowly still, primarily the research of certain psychologists, bolstered by a bit of neuroscience. Most specifically, it focuses in large part (although not exclusively) on the work of Paul Ekman (the author's mentor) and the research of Keltner himself (along with his students).
Ekman was a pioneer in developing a technique to match facial expressions to associated emotions. He found that several basic emotions -- such as anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and happiness -- register in the same facial muscle actions across cultures. Keltner has carried on in this tradition.
Following Jonathan Haidt and others, Keltner's larger thesis is that evolution has honed moral intuitions into embodied emotions that abet the development of morality and communal cooperation. For instance, one can easily see the social benefits of compassion, and the research shows it to correlate to activity in the vagus nerve, a bodily system which developed deep in our mammalian past.
So far, so good. However, Keltner stretches the point to claim that we have evolved a set of emotions that enable us to live a meaningful life, and that, "The key to happiness is to let these emotions arise, to see them fully in oneself and others, and to train the eye and mind in that practice." He proposes what he calls a "jen ratio" to reflect the balance between the "good and uplifting" and the "bad and cynical."
The problem is that he pretty much drops these more ambitious propositions after raising them in Chapter 1. There is no discussion of what a "meaningful life" might be other than one filled with positive emotions. Is meaningfulness simply just happiness? Nor is there a further explication of the "jen ratio," of how the positive emotions might be weighed against the negative ones, for instance. And there is little more on what practices, Zen or otherwise, might contribute to a more favorable jen. If the emotions are biologically established, how can we do much to alter the ratio of their expression in our lives?
Keltner's argument is impaired by the relative lack of attention he gives to the negative emotions. Are these too not also rooted in evolution? There is a case to be made for how anger and the retributive impulse, for instance, might also contribute to social bonding. How would that play out in a jen ratio? Keltner seems to be suggesting we would be better off without the negative emotions. But, if so, why did they evolve?
On the other hand, Born to Be Good has a great deal of merit in what it does cover. Depending on your starting point, if you read it you may learn a lot about how faces and, in some cases, touch or other body language communicate individuals' emotions, attitudes, and intent. Keltner offers informative chapters on embarrassment, smiles, laughter, teasing, and awe, for instance. The many illustrations are very helpful, especially those picturing different facial expressions.
I found the pages covering Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles especially interesting. You probably cannot fake a Duchenne smile, so you should not think you have fooled your hostess that you are enjoying her party when you are not. And if you are considering Botox treatments you may want to think twice. You may believe you will look prettier but, as Keltner points out, your partner(s) will receive fewer clues to your joy, love, and devotion.
I am giving this book three stars because I came to it expecting a more developed presentation of a "science of a meaningful life." If it had not promised quite so much I would have rated it higher (perhaps the subtitle is a tease, a behavior Keltner devotes a chapter to).