“Emotions are signs of our commitment to others; emotions are encoded into our bodies and brains; emotions are our moral gut, the source of our most important moral intuitions.”
– Dacher Keltner
Who is Dacher Keltner?
Dacher Keltner is a social psychologist who has discerned many keen insights behind the nature of our emotions and their evolutionary foundations. He is a professor at the University of California – Berkeley, where he teaches “Human Happiness,” one of the most popular courses amongst undergraduates.
Keltner is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, an esteemed research institute advancing and spreading the scientific understanding of well-being. He is also the director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab.
The influence of Keltner’s work extends far beyond academia. Keltner is the author of the bestseller, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.
He is also the co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.
Through his writings, Dacher Keltner has set out to share his positive perspective on human nature and to dispel the widespread cynicism surrounding the human condition.
His writing infuses Confucian philosophies with modern science, offering unique conceptualizations about well-being and emotion.
Dacher Keltner served as a scientific consultant for the Pixar hit, Inside Out, a movie about emotions personified as characters. Keltner has also worked extensively with Facebook to make their emoticons and their new Reactions feature more representative of the wide spectrum of human emotion.
The Jen Ratio
Jen, a central principle in Confucianism, is “a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people” (Keltner, 2009). A person who embodies jen fulfills his or her capacity to do good, while inspiring the same in others.
Building on this idea, Dacher Keltner introduced the jen ratio as a way of measuring the well-being in an individual, between partners, or even throughout a nation. A jen ratio can be calculated as a simple fraction. The number of actions which inspire the good in others (like complimenting a friend) goes in the numerator, while the number of actions which evoke the negativity in others (like cutting someone in line) goes in the denominator.
Someone with a jen ratio greater than 1, therefore, performs more good deeds than bad ones. Such a person, Keltner argues, is more likely to lead a meaningful life than someone with a low jen ratio.
In his bestseller, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, he backs this assertion with recent findings that selfless acts contribute far more to our well-being than selfish ones. He highlights, for instance, a study that found that spending money on others elevates mood to a greater extent than spending the same amount on oneself (Dunn et al., 2008).
The Zen Romanticism Thesis
By combining his ideas about the jen ratio and his scientific expertise on emotions, Dacher Keltner has come up with the Zen Romanticism thesis. This thesis tackles the age-old question of how one attains lasting happiness. It is a perspective that draws influences from both Confucian principles and western philosophies.
According to the Zen Romanticism thesis, humans have evolved an instinctual drive for positive emotions, like gratitude, mirth, awe, and compassion. The cultivation of these emotions allows one to achieve a high jen ratio. The key to achieving a high jen ratio, and in turn happiness, lies in enjoying and being mindful of such pro-social emotions, while acting in ways that bring to fruition the same emotions in others.
The Instinct for Positive Emotion
In The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, Dacher Keltner counters the popular assertion that humans are inherently selfish. He debunks the likes of Kant, who derided compassion as contemptible and incongruous with human nature. To the contrary, his research and that of his colleagues provide ample evidence that compassion, among other positive emotions, is one of our core instincts, cemented by evolution and evident in our very biology.
Keltner points to research done at Emory University, which revealed that the act of helping others activates the brain structures involved in reward and pleasure (Rilling et al., 2002). Keltner’s own research suggests a similar story: when people act on their compassion, perhaps with a smile or a wave, their bodies produce oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates kindness and nurturing. This finding suggests that the human body may have evolved a self-perpetuating drive to be compassionate (Rodrigues et al., 2009).
Solidifying the case even further, Keltner has found that the human body is so attuned to pro-social emotions that complete strangers are able to convey and understand complex, positive emotions, like compassion, love, and gratitude, through merely 1-second touches (Hertenstein et al., 2009).
Want to Learn More?
If you want to learn more about Dacher Keltner and his work, check out the articles he has written for the Greater Good Science Center. To get you started, here is an excerpt from The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness. The New York Times has also published his first chapter of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Otherwise, below, you’ll find a video of his TEDx talk at the University of California – Berkeley.
Dacher Keltner at TEDxBerkeley
Dunn, E., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. (2008, March 21). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688. Retrieved here. from
Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B. A., & Jaskolka, A. R. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6, 528-533.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York: W.W. Norton &.
Keltner, D., Marsh, J., & Smith, J. A. (2010). The compassionate instinct: The science of human goodness. New York: W.W. Norton &.
Keltner, D., & Ekman, P. (2015, July 3). The Science of 'Inside Out' The New York Times. Retrieved here.
Rilling, J., Gutman, D., Zeh, T., Pagnoni, G., Berns, G., & Kilts, C. (n.d.). A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation. Neuron, 35, 395-405. Retrieved here.
Rodrigues, S. M., Saslow, L. R., Garcia, N., John, O. P., & Keltner, D. (2009, November). Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(50). Retrieved October 12, 2016.
Stinson, L. (2016, February 24). Facebook Reactions, the Totally Redesigned Like Button, Is Here. Retrieved here.