Toward a life of meaning: In conversation with UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner

Illustration of Dacher Keltner
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Somewhere inside us all is a yearning to lead a life that is productive and meaningful. But placing goodness at the center of our human existence often seems like naive idealism for most of us as we try to survive in society. It feels even more impractical as we attempt to navigate the inequalities, discrimination and self-serving interests of leaders and corporations around us in our adult lives. So how can we engage in positive expression and still reconcile it with the contamination of the negativity around us? 

To help answer this question, I sat down for a conversation with Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. I’d been intrigued by his talk on happiness during my Golden Bear Orientation. Keltner teaches the Human Happiness class (LSC160V/PsychC162) here on campus, and his lab, the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, investigates positive emotions like compassion, awe and gratitude, among others. Keltner is also the founding director for the Greater Good Science Center and co-teaches the highly popular and free Massive Open Online Course through edX, The Science of Happiness.

Right off the bat, Keltner pointed out his view of “survival of the kindest,” which he said essentially balances out the story of the more traditionally known “survival of the fittest.” He drew attention to a lot of evolutionary scholarship and game theory traditions that suggest that people, in fact, “share a lot, cooperate a lot, and they will share 40% of their resources with a stranger. They will volunteer to help people they don’t know.” 

Of all Americans, 31% engage in some form of volunteerism. Scholarship by historians like Karen Armstrong on culture and religion also shows that caring for others is really fundamental — whether one follows Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or indigenous beliefs.

In fact, Keltner asserted that as a species, compassion is hard-wired into our DNA; this is backed by gene studies and oxytocin-related studies. It’s one of the deeply evolved emotions exhibited by even our primate relatives. In effect, Keltner stressed that we as humans are not only competitive and violent, but also compassionate, sharing and kind. While a huge chunk of our positive emotions is inherited, positive emotions can also be shaped by environmental input. 

While a huge chunk of our positive emotions is inherited, positive emotions can also be shaped by environmental input. 

As Keltner explained, emotions are what gets us through the day. At one end is the negative emotion cluster including anger, fear and shame, and at the other, you have the positive emotions, which his lab investigates.

“Some emotions are better than others in getting us through a task,” Keltner said.

Compassion is wanting to lift up the welfare of others, and it’s really good at getting people to help other people who are suffering. Gratitude means sharing resources with friends, and it’s better than other emotions at getting us to form cooperative relationships. Pride is a positive emotion in our expression of satisfaction with our own accomplishments, but it is not as effective in helping us take care of other people. So each emotion has a function or purpose. 

When asked if “goodness” is an aggregate of positive emotions, Keltner replied that goodness really is more of a moral quality.  Morality includes good emotions like compassion, gratitude and awe, as well as how we think about these emotions.

Keltner also said it is important to think of emotions on a spectrum or continuum. A lot of new research is showing that in categories of emotion like awe and compassion, there are varieties — some are less intense, and some are more mixed with other emotions. 

Interestingly enough, positive emotions are often used interchangeably in language, whether in English or other languages, even when they are not synonyms. Keltner pointed out that behavioral science and neuroscience have shown that each emotion is distinct. Sympathy is recognizing the suffering of another and wanting to assist, while empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. Perspective-taking is a kind of empathy in which you are able to see other people’s circumstances through their eyes. 

Compassion is a personal favorite for Keltner and a kind of master emotion he said he discusses at length in his class. Compassion leads to behaviors like kindness. Perspective-taking can also lead to behaviors of kindness, but it is different from compassion. Altruism, or sacrifice for other people at our own expense, is also determined by compassion, as is forgiveness, in which we pardon people who have harmed us. 

So where does love as an emotion fit into all this? According to Keltner, there are different types of love, and love is thought of as a state in which you are trusting, devoted and affectionate toward others. 

It has taken 20 years to figure this out, but the scientific community has “gathered a lot of data showing that love is a separate emotion. It’s different from sympathy; it has a different bodily expression. It has a different neurophysiological profile, and it really is about forming attachments to other people,” Keltner said. 

He added that a lot of people feel that at the end of life, what’s most important is love and that they love people. Love is therefore critical to well-being. He said love has a specific context, but if you cultivate a loving attitude toward other people, it will be all-encompassing.

The conversation turned to a different direction as we discussed why society seems to compartmentalize these emotions to certain times of the year, making them feel very artificial. For instance, I’ve observed that the incessant message around the winter holiday season is “Goodwill toward All.” Apparently, this is not a message for the rest of the year. This is illustrated in the significant attention and fundraising to feed the unhoused on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m left to wonder about their hunger needs the rest of the year. 

Keltner explained, “Corporations and capitalism exploit and put to problematic uses all the emotions. That’s what they do; they seek to make money off emotions. Buying presents for other people as an act of compassion, which is built up in the transformed ritual of Christmas, is a form of commodification of this really important emotion, and that is really frustrating. … They see how powerful emotion is and then they try to commodify it and make money off of it by producing rituals and products that we can buy.”

“Corporations and capitalism exploit and put to problematic uses all the emotions. That’s what they do; they seek to make money off emotions.” — Keltner

What Keltner tries to show with his science of kindness is that people are more spontaneously generous than we think, and they routinely assist others on a daily basis with well-documented cases of everyday heroism.

According to Keltner, positive emotions are hypercontagious. Kindness, for instance, spreads really easily. Studies show that if you work for an organization that is more generous to charity, you become more generous as well. Famous studies by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show that positive feelings tend to spread to the people around you — your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, your kids — because we often imitate and pick up the emotions of people around us. Recent research finds that positive states are more contagious than negative states. In effect, this contagious nature produces behaviors that tie into cooperative social networks.

For Keltner, this brought up the interesting question of how one can spread kindness through social networks and also how to prevent someone from taking advantage of your kindness. 

When it comes to the emotion of empathy, matters are more complicated. Evolutionarily, it has been harder to identify with an outsider.  Keltner pointed to research by Carsten de Dreu, which showed that when people were exposed to the neuropeptide oxytocin, empathy was, as expected, switched on — but only for members of their own community and not for outsiders. Oxytocin is really at the heart of promoting commitment and nurturing

This poses one of the great challenges of the day, according to Keltner. He said mass incarceration, which unfairly targets people of color in the criminal justice system, political polarization, nationalism and white supremacy are, in a way, failures of empathy. Keltner stressed that we need to change this by promoting diversity and teaching empathy to get people thinking about the minds of others.

Keltner then offered a thought-provoking comment on the emotion of awe, labeling the human capacity for awe as our defining feature. More so because we are a hypersocial species. He went on to explain that our sense that other people can be good and strong and overcome obstacles comes out of feelings of awe.

“The feeling of awe helps us connect to others, helps us share, helps us feel like we are a part of other people. … It is an engine of exploration and discovery, and it opens up our minds and helps us look for things, discover things and see big patterns in life. … A lot of the things we love the most in life that are part of our culture are inspired by awe,” Keltner said. 

“A lot of the things we love the most in life that are part of our culture are inspired by awe.”

— Keltner

The traditional sources of awe have been religion or spirituality and nature. Keltner explained that our love of and relationship with nature is animated by feelings of awe. Keltner pointed to the example of the indigenous people of North and South America who lived here 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. They saw the patterns in nature, the ecosystems, the way different species collaborated, and they had sophisticated ideas about weather, grain and the power of plants. So they had this very deep awe-based understanding of the natural world and thus lived in greater collaboration with nature.

On the topic of nature, the conversation then turned to climate change. I’ve always thought that if you feel you are but a microcosm in the vast macrocosm of the universe, it brings out an urge to protect rather than contribute to the destruction of this wonder. This led to my belief that it is our awe of nature that has lead us to activism over climate change. Keltner too felt that we are now rediscovering our connections after having become disconnected from the natural world

In fact, modern research studies show that awe results in wanting to take care of nature, recycle more and show more interest in carbon offsetting.

“So awe is going to be critical to fighting climate change and carbon emissions,” Keltner said.

This awe of nature can lead to some very interesting behavior, as Kelter’s lab has demonstrated. An experimental group of students was asked to stare up at the magnificent eucalyptus grove by the Valley Life Sciences Building on campus, thought to be the tallest stand of such trees in North America, with some at 200 feet tall. The control group of students, on the other hand, was asked to stare at just the science building. The group that looked at the eucalyptus trees was more likely to help a passerby who ended up accidentally spilling all their pens. Thus, these bursts of awe help move us from a self-interest viewpoint of “them” to the collective interest of “us.”

Keltner also talked of the “democratization of awe” —  the power of regular small doses of awe has been one of the biggest surprises in his research.

“We find people feel a couple of experiences of awe each week, and we find it actually matters a lot for the health of their minds and their nervous systems,” Keltner said.* 

I know my experience at UC Berkeley has had plenty of “small awe moments” — whether it is the view from the top of the Campanile, Sproul Plaza milling with students during the first week of the semester, sitting in Wheeler Auditorium, which was the site of the only Nobel Ceremony outside of Stockholm, the North Hall of Doe Library, watching the sunset from the steps of the Campanile or just walking under Sather Gate. The list goes on, and I imagine it is the same for other students too. My question was how we could continue to get these steady doses of small awe throughout our lives. 

Keltner pointed to his lab’s research work with UCSF, which showed that regular walks, during which you encounter nature or beautiful things in cities or meaningful parts of your environment, give you awe. People are also a source of awe, including people who inspire you morally and people who have overcome obstacles. Another example is mindfulness meditation practices like yoga and breathing. Music is also a very powerful source, and Americans spend a lot of time listening to music. 

Keltner pointed to his lab’s research work with UCSF, which showed that regular walks, during which you encounter nature or beautiful things in cities or meaningful parts of your environment, give you awe.

When asked, Keltner felt that poetry too can have important qualities of awe.

“So much of poetry is about slowing down, noticing, putting aside our typical categories of making sense of the world,” Keltner said.

Keltner advises throwing yourself into forms of knowledge that are larger than life — whether it is spiritual, historical or cosmological knowledge — something that helps you answer questions like why we live, why we exist and what is a person. A final recommendation was “giving yourself time, slowing down, wandering a bit, not forcing things, just being open as a mindset to cultivate awe,” Keltner stated.

Keltner then elaborated on some of the neural correlates and physiological benefits of cultivating positive traits. 

As Keltner explained, evolutionarily, part of our nervous system is about fight-or-flight. But we also have big branches to our nervous system that are about connecting, caring and finding beauty in the world. For instance, compassion activates the periaqueductal gray area leading to nurturing behavior. The periaqueductal gray is a very old part of the mammalian nervous system and interacts closely with oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin, which is produced in the brain, is involved in childbirth, breastfeeding, empathy and other prosocial behaviors

Studies show that the nucleus accumbens, which is part of your dopaminergic network and reward circuitry in the brain, has increased activation when you express gratitude and when you volunteer for other people.

“This tells us that when I am good to others, it actually feels good,” Keltner said.

New work also shows that positive states actually reduce activation of the Default Mode Network (DMN) in the brain. The DMN tends to be associated with self-focus, ego and even rumination and depression.

Feelings of compassion and awe activate the vagus nerve, thus helping you calm down and connect. The vagus nerve is a large bundle of nerves starting at the top of the spinal cord and is unique to mammals. The vagus nerve is quite amazing, according to Keltner, as it helps with digestion, slows your heart rate and deepens your breathing.

Keltner also talked about the effect on inflammation response. He said there are now about 15 studies that show that awe reduces inflammation in the body.  Cytokines, an inflammation marker, are produced by your immune system in response to illness or stress to attack the pathogens in your body. Continual elevated inflammation, however, is bad for your heart, digestion and brain.

Keltner considers awe and compassion to be the two best candidates for master positive emotions.

“I think if you cultivate feelings of compassion, if you feel wonder and awe for the world, you are going to feel a lot of other positive emotions,” Keltner said.

In fact, a UC Berkeley finding at his lab by Jennifer Stellar showed that feelings of wonder and awe were the only positive states to be related to reduced inflammation, not other emotions like pride or love. 

Essentially, Keltner underscored that research literature confirms that happiness and all these positive emotions really matter for your body. Keltner believes that eventually, they will figure out exactly how each of these emotions will help our health through biologically different pathways, such as awe through reduced inflammation and compassion through the vagal tone.  

The conversation then turned to some big asks regarding practical everyday tips to cultivate these qualities. Essentially, how are we, now and in the future, to personally lead a life that has purpose and also gives us sustained connectivity in order to bring about meaning? How are we to reconcile with related stresses and powerlessness that often accompany disability, illness and marginalized groups? And how do we change the world around us to act likewise, with kinder, benevolent tendencies? 

Keltner advised starting with some mindful breathing every day. A second suggestion was to practice gratitude once a week. One of Keltner’s favorite things, which he said is very powerful, is to think of a couple of things for which you are grateful at night.

A third suggestion was to choose social ties over money. He feels that most UC Berkeley undergraduates are going to do pretty well in this area. Too often in life, people choose work or making money over friendships, and Keltner hopes that the current generation will change that.

Fourth on his list was to find a source of awe in your life.

“Get outside, go for a walk. Take a moment to stop and be near bodies of water, look at clouds,” Keltner said.

A fifth suggestion was service or volunteerism — to think of one way your life or work serves other people — and he pointed out that Berkeley is a hot spot for this kind of conversation.

What he encourages readers and students to do is to go to the Greater Good Science Center, which is a “Berkeley thing,” find five things they consider their happiness exercises and start doing them every week.

The first tactic is to train your mind through mindfulness techniques to really handle stress, to label it and make sense of it.

With respect to the stresses caused by the negativity and inequalities of the world today, Keltner pointed to a couple of things he teaches in his Human Happiness class. The first tactic is to train your mind through mindfulness techniques to really handle stress, to label it and make sense of it. Secondly, he urges us to find a source of injustice in the world we want to improve. 

In his class, he teaches that certain kinds of anger are actually good for society, good for bringing about social change. He feels that at UC Berkeley especially, we care about positive social change, and when we find something we consider unjust, we work toward taking action. 

As for how to change the world, Keltner thinks this really is the question for the current generation. We have awareness of global issues, but how do we apply our knowledge to make the world better?  The area in which Keltner feels we are really lagging behind is the application of this knowledge in changing institutions like the criminal justice system, for instance.

To bring about meaningful change, he suggested starting by incorporating this knowledge into the work that you do. He gave the example of the thousands of teachers and health care professionals touched by the Greater Good Science Center who are now teaching and prescribing this knowledge.

He also encourages students in his class to develop a life philosophy by the time they leave UC Berkeley, which helps them incorporate some of these ideas.

“Have a life philosophy about how you practice gratitude … how you find calm and quiet … how you benefit nature,” he advised.

It is also important to think about big life choices and make sure that happiness plays a role in your decision-making.

“We think a lot about diet. We think a lot about exercise. We think a lot about study habits. Now (students) need five things from the Greater Good Science Center, and they will be on their way,“ Keltner said.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].