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Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life Hardcover – 10 Feb 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (10 Feb. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039306512X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065121
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 3 x 24.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 242,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars 32 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the 10 best books I've read this year! 21 Aug. 2016
By BrianBrawdy - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
For over 30 years now, employing the only formal education I have (NY police criminal. investigator), I've worked to uncover the answer to one simple question. This book certainly offers a "clue" for which I've been searching!
4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Renown Scientist Proves It Again 30 Jun. 2009
By Sam I Am - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dacher Keltner is renown for his groundbreaking research on emotions and social psychology. He was a post-graduate student of Paul Ekman who is one of the fathers of facial expressions recognition.
Born to Be Good is well researched, much was done in the author's U.C. Berkeley laboratory and with collaborations. This book has been cited by many other psychologists and other authors as well.
Human evolution has instilled the need for high jen ratios, cooperation amongst family and community, gratitude, awe. Learning and doing what makes us happy enhances our lives.
I highly recommend this book and any work by Dacher Keltner.
29 of 40 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...
14 of 14 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
Format: Paperback
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"
149 of 161 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hold the Botox 14 Mar. 2009
By Jay C. Smith - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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).
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