Book Review: The Science of a Meaningful Life

by Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and, as the founder of the Greater Good Science Centre (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/), is very much a part of the positive psychology movement. His primary interest lies in the biological and evolutionary basis of prosocial and benevolent affect – examining emotions such as sympathy, love and gratitude, processes such as touch and laughter and, odd as it might seem, embarrassment and teasing. His book ‘Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life’, although published in 2009, is still sufficiently current to provide a comprehensive and interesting overview of his work and the conclusions he and his researchers have come to.

On the face of it that should be sufficient to engage the interest of any student in positive psychology. However, his approach really is fascinating and makes this a worthwhile read – placing it amongst the classics such as Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Happiness Hypothesis’ and Martin Seligman’s ‘Learned Optimism’.

Keltner was a graduate student of Paul Ekman and much of his research applies the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by Ekman and Wallace Friesen to objectively examine subjective emotions. This technique is well explained and illustrated in the book providing the reader with a good insight into how subsequent conclusions are arrived at. His central thesis is however, that both the expression of emotion and the emotions themselves are evolved attributes in humans and have their corollaries in the animal kingdom. Here Keltner does two things. Firstly, he rightly acknowledges Charles Darwin’s original and highly astute work in this field and does much to dispel the misconceptions that have arisen around Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Secondly, he uses the evidence presented by his research to construct a picture of human nature as inherently benevolent and prosocially driven – a conclusion that Darwin himself came to but which has subsequently been lost from sight. From this basis Keltner examines embarrassment, smiling, laughter, teasing, touch, love, compassion and awe and with it reveals, with suitable irreverence, the intimate secrets of, amongst others, our blushing, goosebumps and a kiss. If you are anything like the reviewer, you will want to sign up immediately for the one hundred arduous hours it takes to learn the FACS technique.

So much for the science – what does this mean from a human perspective? For the UEL student of Positive Psychology Keltner plays a masterstroke – and uses the Confucian philosophical concept of ‘jen’ to bring this to life. In this, the meaningful life is found by bringing the good in others to completion – ‘Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others’. A pretty fitting summary of this book.

Author’s Bio

Ross Madgwick started off life as a rock engineer (with blasting license) and, quite naturally, metamorphosed over time into a freelance transformation consultant specialising in collaborative systems and behaviour. From the positive psychology perspective his main interest lies in the implications of the emergent properties of socio-environmental systems for our understanding of well-being, ‘meaning’ and the evaluation of quality of life. Apart from that more or less anything else goes.

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