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Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life [Hardcover]

Dacher Keltner

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Book Description

10 Feb 2009
"Born to Be Good" demonstrates that humans are not hardwired to lead lives that are 'nasty, brutish and short' - we are in fact born to be good. Dacher Keltner investigates an old mystery of human evolution: why we have evolved positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe and compassion that promote ethical action and are the fabric of cooperative societies. By combining stories of scientific discovery, personal narrative and Eastern philosophy, Keltner illustrates his discussions with more than fifty snapshots of human emotions. "Born to Be Good" is a profound study of how emotion is the key to living the good life and how the path to happiness goes through human emotions that connect people to one another.

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Starred Review. A landmark book in the science of emotion and its implications for ethics and human universals, this is essential for all libraries. "

About the Author

* DACHER KELTNER is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, director of the Greater Good Science Center and co-editor of Greater Good magazine. His research focuses on pro-social emotions, power and moral reasoning.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
122 of 131 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hold the Botox 14 Mar 2009
By Jay C. Smith - Published on
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).
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary Arrows Point to Being Good 1 Sep 2009
By Virgelio Carpio - Published on
Darwin's theory of evolution says that through a process called "natural selection" those that cannot adapt to the environment eventually become extinct. Fossils around the globe confirm this. In light of this theory, one might think that the strong will always survive and overpower the weak out of existence. Genes by their nature, therefore, are selfish because all they want to do is propagate.

Since we are all made from genes, some believe that we, too, as a species are selfish by nature. As the book states, our every action is designed to maximize wealth. We help others expecting we would in turn receive help someday. We would satisfy the "pleasure centers" of our brains through sex, drug, money, self-interest, or any other means anytime we could. "Thou shalt not kill" implies that murder is in our blood and therefore the need for such a commandment in the first place. In the greater scheme of an evolutionary wilderness, acts of kindness toward others are simply aberrations or misfires in the brain.

The book disagrees.

Darwin himself observed that sympathetic communities are more likely to produce healthier offspring than cruel ones. Human history shows that compassion always pulls through in times of war. And new studies of our body's physiology show that caretaking emotions are wired within our nervous systems.

As a species, we evolved at some point to walk on two feet. In doing so, the female's birth canal narrowed. Our babies therefore have to be born small in order to pass through the smaller opening. In comparison to other animals whose newborns can walk upright the moment they're born, our babies need a long time of nursing -- at least eighteen months and continually at that all throughout the day -- before they can survive on their own. As a result, caregiving for the human species became a way of life.

Emotion has often been downplayed, restrained, indeed even belittled, in comparison to intellect. We must suppress emotion and let intellect roam free if we are to discover new things, solve life's riddles, and survive in an increasingly competitive and academic business world. Excitement, it is said, kills. Although true and essential when, say, doing a heart bypass, maneuvering a crippled jetliner into safe landing, or simply driving down the highway, we should not forget that -- as the book so plainly states -- had it not been for our emotions, we as a species might not be here today.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Facial muscle movement conveys much more than language! 1 Mar 2011
By Barbara S. Reeves - Published on
Time and time again, studies have shown that what makes us happy is the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, and the connection we feel to communities. The Dalai Lama said, "If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, practice compassion." "Born to be Good" by Dacher Keltner, who is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, postulates that our capacity for good is programmed into our brains and bodies.

Keltner has developed what he calls "jen" science. The Confucian concept of "jen" refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people. Keltner's "jen" science is the study of facial expressions, patterns of touch, and tones of voice. He uses neuroscience, evolution, psychology, and Eastern thought to explain how we evolved to be good.

And this is the third book I've read recently that deals with Paul Eckman's Facial Action Coding System (FACS). It was discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" and "Social Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman. FACS is a method of identifying, frame by frame, facial muscle movement to detect emotional expression during social interaction. Apparently we express emotions in millisecond bursts of facial muscle movement which conveys much more than language can with its inherent limits. Ekman also proved that facial expression is cross-cultural - all humans express the same emotions using the same facial muscle movements.

In chapters devoted to "pro-social" emotional displays such as smile, laughter, tease, compassion, and awe, Keltner shines new light on the exact meaning of certain emotional displays. For instance, before he began his research, the display of embarrassment was thought to be a sign of confusion and thwarted intention. He discovered that this display is actually a sign of respect for others, a sign of our appreciation of others view of things, and our commitment to the social order.

I enjoy reading books like "Born to be Good" because I believe they help me with my recovery from addiction. I have to always be mindful of the emotions I'm feeling, why I'm feeling them, and how I react to them. And now I have more insight into how and why I express them.

David Allan Reeves
Author of "Running Away From Me"
28 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Quick, fluffy, puffy, and fun read... 7 Feb 2009
By Doctor Robert - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The entire book can be summarized in just a few words: Darwin and evolutionary psychology are good; positive emotions are good; helping others experience positive emotions is good; the face and other non-verbals are good indicators of emotions; Dr. Paul Ekman is good; HHDL is good; jen is really good; and we can all be good if we choose to be.

If you enjoy reading positive psychology, this is not a bad book. I enjoyed it as a leisurely read over a few nights. I do wish the author had used a traditional list of references and notes to summarize his sources. I suspect there are better books on the horizon for Dr. Keltner...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Interresting 27 Jan 2013
By Milton L. Erhardt - Published on
I found the above reviews by Virgelio Carpo and Jay C. Smith to be very accurate descriptions of the book. There is truly very little I have to offer that hasn't been stated by those reviewers. What I can state is my emotional reaction to the book.

I have long pondered why, or if, we are endowed by evolution to be altruistic. In many ways this book answered my questions. I was troubled by the later chapters in the book which discussed particular emotions, which seemed to lack the fuller explanations of the earlier chapters. However, that being said, I think the problems I found in the later chapters were most likely due to my own idiosyncrasies, and not any due to failure by the author.

I would like to have seen a discussion of the evolution and purpose of negative emotions and possibly psychopathy. But, the name of the book is "Born to be Good". I imagine the author considered such topics to be out of the purview of this particular writing. Perhaps Dacher Keltner will explore such topics in future writings.

I must admit at times I felt as though Mr. Keltner was writing about me personally, especially the portion concerning frightened infants. Being able to read non-fiction from such a perspective speaks volumes about Mr.Keltners skills as an author.

All in all I consider this to be an excellent work, deserving of any person's library.
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