‘Be Bold:’ Dacher Keltner highlights the importance of emotion and what it takes to be a leading psychologist

Dacher Keltner/Courtesy

The Beatles once said, “All you need is love,” but it doesn’t take long living a day in the life of a UC Berkeley student to realize that feelings are a lot more complicated than that.

College is a time when having an understanding of your own emotional wellbeing is critical to maintaining a happy life. But when faced with the chronic stress, pressure and competition associated with being a student, mitigating these inflammatory conditions can be a resolutely difficult task. Now factor in midterm season. Needless to say, the emotions we feel play a huge role in our lives, and if we don’t adopt a mindful mentality, they can come to dominate who we are as individuals.

Dacher Keltner is a psychologist who is expert on emotions and social interactions. The renowned UC Berkeley professor sheds light on the universality of emotional experience and the importance of new discoveries in the field.

In addition to pioneering various psychological studies, Keltner has contributed to familiar and innovative projects, such as Facebook Reactions and the award-winning Pixar movie, “Inside Out.”

The behavioral expert had many fascinating revelations and tidbits to share about the field of psychology, as well as personal anecdotes that illuminated his personal connection to the field. There was one resounding conclusion that struck me: his sheer passion for discovering new facets of the psychological topography of emotions.

He is dedicated not just to the field itself, but to extrapolating the benefits of learning about the human psyche from a purely academic audience to the general public at large. Evidence of this manifests itself in the form of his initiatives, like The Greater Good Science Center, and other research projects studying happiness, sadness, awe, and of course, “love.”  

The Daily Californian: When did you know you wanted to get into psychology? Was there something in particular that drew you towards it? Can you describe your journey getting to where you are now?

Dacher Keltner: I was really lucky in that I grew up in a household that was kind of experimental; my dad was an artist, my mom was a literature professor. It was experimental in the sense that my parents were really open, curious and wanted me to learn from experience, be it living abroad, getting out in nature, reading fiction or whatever it was, and I got really interested in the subjective world: “What is experience about? What is beauty? Why do I feel this way when I look at a painting?” … Both of my parents got me to start thinking about how emotions are right at the center of social life … I loved evolution, early on, and when I discovered — late in grad school, early as a postdoc — that there is this rigorous science by which we study the different emotions, I was transformed; I was blown away.

DC: It sounds like your parents were very influential, particularly early on in your life as your interest in psychology was developing. But as you’ve gone on through your career, you’ve worked with a number of other extremely influential, incredible psychologists — Paul Ekman, to name just one example. Who has had the greatest effect on you throughout your career or has served as an important mentor in your life, and how did they influence you specifically?

DK: I was really lucky in the sense that my first real advisor was Phoebe Ellsworth, who teaches at the University of Michigan. She and I developed this idea that emotions guide these deep ways of looking at the world. When you’re in a state of anger, everything is inflamed with injustice and unfairness. When you’re feeling fearful, it’s filled with uncertainty, risk and peril. Sadness is about loss. You can think about them as sort of moral sensory systems, as in, “This is what matters.” And that idea has been right at the heart of a lot of work I do.

(In regard to) Paul Ekman, it just astounded me that you could really start to measure emotions in the body: facial expressions, tones of voice, body posture, head tilts and then physiological responses. I think there are several people in the field, like Charles Darwin and William James, who have this sense that we look to the bodily cues of emotion, and that tells us a lot about experience and evolution. That blew my mind.

It was really interesting … being a person who loved art and painting — you know the Dutch Masters, (Francisco) Goya — … and then (realizing) you could (capture emotion) scientifically. You could actually measure what a face looks like, what emotions are happening — you can really capture that. It transformed me.  

DC: You have such a vast repertoire of successful projects. Can you touch upon some of the highlights of your career, considering the broad range of things you focus on. What do you derive the most satisfaction from? What work are you most proud of?

DK: The thing that really lasts is when you run a big lab and have graduate students that are the caliber of students that come to UC Berkeley. And then they become professors and develop their own contributions. We have over 20 (students) in our lab; there’s nothing like that. … And watching Cal undergrads do the same — it’s awesome.

And then I would say there is nothing, still to this day 30 years into this, that is more exhilarating than great findings. Our lab, be it a finding on the genetics of awe or the benefits of rafting for veterans or new maps of emotion or what social class does to how you drive a car — those are some of our findings just in the last couple of years. When you have these ideas, and then get to figure out the studies and see the results come in, it’s like these little dramatics acts. That’s what sustains me.

And then I would say, working on “Inside Out.” I love (screenwriter and director) Pete Docter , the films he makes. I grew up part of the time in LA, and so I’ve always loved films. And then to watch that film unfold and see how it touched base with the science here at UC Berkeley. … When I first saw it, I was just crying because it was such unbelievable insight.

And I would say that the work I did on a case against solitary confinement will be something that, on my deathbed, I will be proud of being a part of. There’s a lot activity in the East Bay like, “What’s wrong with our criminal justice system, and why do we have 2.4 million people in prison? Why do we put teens in solitary confinement?” And so, they reached out to me because I do research on touch. … To be a part of that was really exciting.

DC: You mentioned that one of the most thrilling parts about what you do is making a new discovery. Is there something you learned throughout the research process about the human psyche that surprised you or particularly interested you? Or was there a moment when you discovered new knowledge that particularly stands out in your memory as an amazing accomplishment?    

DK: I do work on emotion and hierarchy, and as the findings unfold they astonish you, and then you start to make sense of them, and then they become a part of our knowledge. And so because of that, we are more struck by what’s new… There is this guy, Alan Cowen … who has figured out how to map experiences of emotion. Just to use new statistical techniques, like for instance, if I have all these emotions when I listen to different types of music, how do you represent that? He has figured out this way to map experience that, I had intuited what it could look like, but never realized. …

And then …. we are studying awe now, and little brief periods of awe: being outdoors, being in an inspiring political movement. … You know (these periods of awe) help your immune system, reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms in veterans, and that, to me is, so exciting. I start to think, “How does that work? Why is it like that?” We have to get that message out: why the nervous system responds that way to awe.

DC: Can you talk a little bit about co-directing the Greater Good Science Center? It seems like the premise of that project is to go beyond the realm of academia and foster a broader outreach to the public when it comes to psychology. Could you also comment on how the intention of this work differs from your other endeavors, if it does at all.

DK: 15 years ago, there was a couple of (UC Berkeley) alumni in the wake of tragedy; their daughter had just passed away at the young age of 26. In the spirit of Berkeley, they wanted to do something that brought peace to people. And they tapped me. …  It used to be that science was in the lab, and it tells us the truth, and that’s it. And now a days, for a variety of reasons, we think of science as an ingredient for social change. Justifiably so. If we learn that inequality is bad for a child’s brain, then that should be part of the argument against salary disparities and so forth.

One thing you can do with knowledge is you can refine it and have conversations on university campuses, but I really wanted to project it outwards, get this knowledge into teachers’ hands and nurses’ hands and doctors’ hands and judges’ hands. So how it’s different from what we do here (on campus) is we created this model of just getting really smart people to write about cooperation and altruism and compassion and empathy and use the science as the basis for argument.

And then what happens is, and we didn’t anticipate this — we first started out with a print magazine, because that’s what you did in 2002, and then websites started happening and internet and podcasts, so we just rode along this wave of new mediums and entrusted them, just made sure that we’re getting this material into the conversations. And then the thing we really thought hard about is who will put this to good use? And what we’ve done really well, thanks to the people at the Greater Good Science Center, is make a “bottom-up” model of social change.

Rather than UC Berkeley scientists telling the world what to do, let’s bring 200 teachers to the Berkeley campus, and have them learn about the material, and then they design what to do. And now were going to do this with health care providers. It’s been an incredible experience, right up there with “Inside Out.”

DC: Your work centers on emotions and social interaction; in college, these are hugely relevant topics that the young adults on campus would certainly benefit from having a better understanding of.  If you were to give a piece of advice to students on this campus in regards to emotional well-being or human connection, what would it be?

DK: I teach “The Science of Happiness” here at UC Berkeley, and stress levels are higher than they were when I was an undergrad. You guys are working harder, the material is harder, and the work you’re doing is more complicated. And then UC Berkeley is a pressure cooker — it’s hard to think of a university that puts more pressure on its students. So, what I always tell people is first thing to do is to find a reliable way that you handle stress. That could be mindful walks outdoors, which is what I do. It could be art, it could be a theatre group, it could be crossword puzzles. … You do the introspection and the inquiry where you go, “Half an hour ago, I was really stressed out, and now I feel like I got it into perspective.” And today, you have to do that; it’s an age of anxiety, and it’s what works for you: quiet, breathing, walking out into the hills, listening to music — there are a lot of ways to do it.  And then you have to practice, make it a part of your life.

And then the other thing that I think is really short-shrifted in our culture is friendship, social ties, community. It’s so interesting, in the United States, a lot of people – people who go to Cal – think, “I thought I’d have more community, or I thought I’d have this sense of comradery, I just thought that’d be there.” And this is a cultural problem. … 30 percent of Americans feel lonely, and it gets higher as you get older. If you live in Mexico, you’re in a town, you go to the zócalo, you see your friends; culture built the way to be communal. In the United States, we’ve torn that down with suburbs and commutes in cars and isolated towns. And so here, people have to build that (sense of community) and really commit to that.

And then, I think what’s interesting, we know a third big source of the good life is joy. It comes in many forms. Some people are awe people; they love awe. They go to Burning Man; they are in the front row of the mosh pit or they are hiking alone in the Sierras. Some people are gratitude people. They love saying thank you and holding hands. Some people are satirists and love humor. So find your own “big bang” positive experience or emotion, and then make that part of your life.  

DC: Being “emotional” or having “emotions” often has a negative connotation in our society. What message would you want to send to anyone who subscribes to that social construct, or who feels that suppressing emotion is the best way to cope with any type of struggle, or who maybe suppresses emotion simply due to a cultural/social pressure?

DK: This is why “Inside Out” is such a revolution. I think for women it’s easier to understand. For younger men, it’s a little bit easier. But for men who are older, it becomes something a little bit trickier. We’re in this transitional moment of social change. And like “Inside Out” said, we need the emotions; we need compassion. What I tell people is relying on your passions makes you wiser, makes you a better investor; it makes you better at leading; it improves the bottom line at work; it’s better for your physical health; the people around you will like you better if you have these passions that are guided by reason and guide reason. I come out of a school of thought that the passions are why we’re here. And they are our most human qualities.

DC: What advice can you give aspiring psychology students trying to make a mark in the field? Or to any students, for that matter, who are passionate about their own interests.

Professor Keltner: If you’re talking about lab science and people, there is something that we talk about in scientific inquiry called unexplained variance, which is: Something is happening out there, there’s a phenomenon, i.e., “Why in certain counties, are poorer kids getting sicker? Or why does Harvey Weinstein act like that, I mean who in the world could ever do that? Or what is Facebook doing to political discourse?” There is all this stuff we care about, that we just don’t understand. … Go to the thing that you care about, and then go to places where we don’t have answers. And be bold.

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected]

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