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Original Essays

From Darwin and Confucius: More Jen in the New Year

by Dacher Keltner
  1. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
    $9.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A landmark book in the science of emotion and its implications for ethics and human universals." Library Journal (starred review)
As we imagine our New Year's wishes and resolutions, we are searching for something new. Historic elections, economic crises, and the hopes for ending wars and starting green economies have yielded the highest of expectations. What I wish for is something old but not well captured in the English language: Jen.

Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius. Jen refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people. Alienated by the violence, the materialism, and the hierarchical religion of his sixth and fifth century BC China, Confucius taught a new way of finding the meaningful life — the cultivation of jen. A person of jen, Confucius observes, "wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others." A person of jen "brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion." Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.

Jen has not fared well in the annals of Western thought. Its relatives — kindness, altruism, sacrifice — were blind passions for Kant, neurotic defense mechanisms for Freud, and acts of treason for Rand. Instead, we have been led to believe that, at our core, humans are greedy, competitive, and violent, and that happiness is to be found in the gratification of desire and in material gain. Recent science, however, shows this is wrong. The pursuit of materialistic goals has been found to make people less happy. Economic indicators only show the weakest relations to people's sense of well-being. In one recent study, giving $20 to someone else lifted people's spirits more than spending that sum to indulge a personal desire. So much for homo economicus. It is time we think less about blue chip indexes and the S&P 500 and more about jen.

One lens upon happiness is the jen ratio, which captures the balance of jen in life. In the top part of the ratio, in the numerator, put all actions in which you or other people have brought the good in others to completion — a kind hand on your back in a crowded bus, the young child who compliments the elderly woman on her bathing suit as she nervously dips her toe in a swimming pool, the woman who laughs as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. In the denominator of the ratio, list the occasions in which you or others have done the opposite, bringing the bad in others to completion — the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars past, the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well-heeled passersby. Higher scores translate to greater jen in life. And scientific studies are finding that higher jen ratios make for more satisfying romantic partnerships, children who handle stress better and form deeper networks of friendships, individuals who resist the body's inevitable demise and live longer, and communities and cultures that are more trusting and that enjoy greater social and economic well-being.

The deep story to the science of jen traces back to two of Charles Darwin's less well-known assertions about human nature. The first is that our capacities for sympathy, play, appreciation, and fellow feeling are in fact the strongest of our species — survival of the kindest is a more apt description of our evolution than survival of the fittest. Insights from studies of our close primate relatives, the chimps and the bonobos, from archeological studies of hearths and hunting remains, and from hunter-gatherer cultures are corroborating Darwin's early intuitions. We are learning that:

  • We are a care-taking species. The profound vulnerability of our offspring rearranged our social organization as well as branches of our nervous system.
  • We are a face-to-face species. We are remarkable in our capacity to empathize, to mimic, to mirror.
  • Our power hierarchies differ from those of other species; power goes to the most emotionally intelligent.
  • We reconcile our conflicts rather fleeing or killing; we have evolved powerful capacities to forgive.

The science of jen is founded on a second assertion of Darwin's, unusual in western thought, that happier individuals and healthier communities — that is, those with high jen ratios — cultivate emotions like compassion, gratitude, awe, love, embarrassment, and mirth. My scientific study of emotion has been guided by Darwin's insights to document how we have evolved for jen. Our briefest of expressions of embarrassment — coy smiles, gaze aversion, and glancing touches to the face — resemble mammalian appeasement displays and within milliseconds prompt others to forgive and forget. The smile evolved as one of the first and most powerful signals of equality and trust, and prompts others to be cooperative and kind. Our vocal apparatus has changed radically in our hominid evolution, giving rise to a whole vocabulary of laughs, from grunts to song-like melodies, which transport us to a realm of levity and lightness where we look upon life's trials and tribulations from new perspectives. The much maligned act of teasing turns out to be a remarkable realm of play and pretence, best codified in the brilliance of fools and jesters, where we negotiate conflicts, hierarchies, and ambivalent affections in peaceful but dramatized fashion. The astonishing new science of touch (and it should astonish, for we are a touch-deprived culture) finds that touch makes people trust, it increases body weight in premature babies and reduces depression in adults in nursing homes, it builds strong immune systems, and sets the brain toward more resilient, peaceful settings. In our lab, we have found that people can communicate compassion, love, and gratitude to a stranger with one second touches to the forearm. A new science has emerged centering upon oxytocin, a neuropeptide that promotes devotion, and how it is released during breast feeding, touch, trust, and nonverbal displays of love. A bundle of nerves unique to mammals known as the vagus nerve, which runs from the top of the spinal cord through the chest and midsection and is felt like liquid warmth in the chest when activated, evolved to enable compassion and the expanding circle of care. Studies of goosebumps and our capacity for the sacred tell a fascinating story about the most mysterious of emotions, awe, and how it enables us to fold into cooperative social collectives.

These emotions that I have been fortunate to capture in my lab for a fragile, fleeting instant or two have their evolutionary provenance in a reverence for human beings, in the poet Percy Shelley's words, an "identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own." These emotions are the raw materials, the sine qua non, of the good will that connects people separated only by the surfaces of their skin. A teenager's blush triggers a forgiving smile from parents, and conflict and tension subsides. A deferential smile and "thank you" between bag boy and elderly lady in the check-out line spreads respect and enhances their respective faiths in the human endeavor, if only for a moment or two. Parents pushing infants on swings fill a space with smiles, coos, and laughs, creating a warm environment of trust and good will. Songs of laughter ripple through couples, friends, families, auditoriums, linking minds in cooperative, lighthearted play. Kind embraces spread from child, to friend, to grandparent. We have genes, neurotransmitters, and regions of the brain that serve these emotions as we serve others. These emotions are the substance of jen. Evolution has produced a mind that evolves toward an appreciation of the vastness of our collective design, and emotions that enable us to enact these loftier notions. We are born to be good.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dacher Keltner received his BA in psychology and sociology from UC Santa Barbara in 1984 and his PhD in social psychology from Stanford University in 1989. After a post-doc at UCSF with Paul Ekman, in 1992 he took his first academic job, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then returned to Berkeley's Psychology Department in 1996, where he is now a full professor.

Dacher's research focuses on two time-honored questions. A first is the biological and evolutionary origins of human goodness, with a special concentration on compassion, awe, love, and beauty. A second is the study of power, status, and social class, and the nature of moral intuitions. Dacher is the co-author of two best selling textbooks, one on human emotion, the other on social psychology, as well as Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, published in January 2009 by W. W. Norton, which makes the case for an evolutionary approach to the emotions that promote human goodness.

Dacher has published over 100 scientific articles, he has written for the New York Times Magazine and Utne Reader, and has received numerous national prizes and grants for his research. His research has been covered in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the BBC, CNN, NPR, and in many other outlets. For his teaching and mentoring, he was selected as the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor in 2002, and the Outstanding Teacher, Division of Social Sciences, in 2002. Wired magazine recently rated Dacher's podcasts from his course Emotion as one of the five best educational downloads, and the Utne Reader selected Dacher for one of its 50 2008 visionaries. Dacher also serves as the Director of the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, where he serves as co-editor of the center's magazine, Greater Good. Dacher lives in Berkeley with his wife, an alumna of Berkeley, and their two daughters. spacer

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