Dacher Keltner Says Be Good

A Berkeley seminar addresses how practicing trust, empathy, and gratitude can make us happy.

While hiding from the Nazis who would soon transport her to the
concentration camp where she died, Anne Frank wrote a line that has
sparked endless debate ever since. “Despite everything,” wrote the
doomed Jewish schoolgirl, “I believe that people are really good at
heart.”

Dacher Keltner agrees. The UC Berkeley psychology professor,
who is also the Greater Good Science Center’s research director and the
executive editor of Greater Good magazine, studies the social
function of emotions. At the Chevron Auditorium in the International
House
(2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley) on Friday, May 15, Keltner
hosts “Mindfulness, Health, and Well-Being,” a seminar exploring how
the deliberate practice of trust, empathy, gratitude, kindness, and
other positive behaviors can benefit both body and mind.

Keltner says he’s deeply indebted to Charles Darwin, whose many days
spent watching apes at the London Zoo led to “his amazingly astute
observations about sympathy and laughter and play.” Homo sapiens
shares with its closest evolutionary kin “a set of emotions that are
the key to being happy,” Keltner says, “and those are emotions like
compassion and embarrassment and awe and amusement.”

Wait — embarrassment? How can the way we feel when our pants
fall down in public possibly make us smile? As he will discuss at the
seminar, Keltner has observed during his own experiments that the
startle reflex is an instantaneous display of the raw self, of a true
vulnerability by which living creatures reveal themselves to each other
and sometimes appease each other, seeking and acquiring forgiveness,
acceptance, and affection.

Can training ourselves to generate and cultivate certain emotions
— including embarrassment — create positive long-term
effects? Keltner thinks so: “In my own life, I have found that I’m
happiest and giving to society most when I am experiencing emotions
like modesty, embarrassment, compassion, and a sense of beauty.”

We can help the world become a better place even by embarrassing
each other. Having studied teasing for over fifteen years, Keltner
believes that relationships improve when we lampoon one another —
for instance, via playful pantomimes. In his view, this helps the
recipients of the japes loosen up. Americans, he asserts, take
themselves too seriously.

Also featured at the seven-hour seminar is a presentation by Jon
Kabat-Zinn, the world-renowned expert on mindfulness and author of such
bestselling books as Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You
Go, There You Are
. The day concludes with a session on practical
tips for manifesting positive emotions, drawing on cutting-edge
research from psychology and neuroscience as well as common sense and
ancient wisdom.

Keltner, whose book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful
Life,
came out in January, says his work has affected his outlook
on real life: “I have become more acutely aware of how good human
beings are, and that there’s hope for our species and hope for better
communities.” And programmed right into our DNA are “all these amazing
emotions that evolution has designed that make us good to others.” 8:30
a.m.-4:45 p.m., $109-$139. PeaceCenter.Berkeley.edu

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