Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

People like to think of themselves in terms of lines: individuals progressing from birth to death; evolution (and social history) starting at point A and moving continuously forward. While constructs like these may serve our need to situate ourselves in understandable narratives, science keeps confounding the impulse. New research into who we are, and why we do what we do, would seem bent on proving that we are better represented by concentric loops and mind-blowingly intricate feedbacks of brain chemistry, biology, linguistics, elements from the primate past, and more. In just the past decade, a growing list of popular science books has made it possible for the general reader to peer inside the stupendously overdetermined organism that is the human — and to feel a woozy thrill on learning that such vertiginous complexity lives in each one of us.

You might need a stretcher to carry you out from the excitements provided by the latest addition to that library. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at Berkeley, concentrating on the facial expression of emotions. Their true purpose is the subject of this collation of studies of how we relate to one another both socially and interpersonally. It is deeply fascinating (and only a little maddening) foundation reading for anyone interested in…well, in life. For the story of our emotions is also the story of how we survive as a species, as well as why we want to. It is thus the story of our stories — and our art.

The author of Born to Be Good talks of what he terms “jen science,” based on a Confucian principle of reciprocal goodness. He shows that this tendency to want to be kind, do good works — to feel happy and make others so — is hard-wired in the human animal. It is counterposed, although he does not dwell on the negative balance, against the opposing tendency to stomp on, crush, or otherwise dismantle each other. The jen ratio of which he writes must indeed be tilted toward the good, however, or we’d all be dead.

So the author arrays the science of jen before us in convincing accumulation: the researches conducted by his mentor Paul Ekman, whose compendious catalog of facial expressions (in the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS) begat affective science; the economy of long-term commitment, which relies on emotion (guilt, compassion, sympathy) to pay its bills. Indeed, one of the more lovely findings of several studies is that sympathy may really be what makes the world go round: It brings us together, keeps us together. Not to mention alive. It is so crucial to helping us determine whom to trust that its expression in the face is the result of involuntary muscle action, so that it cannot be faked (unless, of course, you are one of the following types: “actors, sociopaths, late-night televangelists, and people who take the hundred hours to learn FACS”). No matter its hoariness, not only is “trust your gut” — the viscera being the reactor in which chemicals that drive the emotions churn — still the best advice in interpersonal relations, it is in fact the way we developed as pack animals who prevailed because of our close-knit societies.

The book excels in making the complexity of these systems comprehensible and in tying the brute physical, including the quantifiable flow of hormonal juices, to the more high-flown cultural constructs we have preferred to think of as products of singularly human free will, i.e., morality. Important here — and contrary to 1,000 years of Western thought — is the notion that emotions are not like unruly children upsetting the teacups and making untoward hoopla in the parlor of the more decorous grown-ups we wish to be. Rather, “Emotions do not subvert ethical living; they are guides to moral action, and they tell us what matters.” What matters is that we are brought together (in love, and in partnership) with others whom we can trust.

Darwin, who laid the groundwork on which behavioral science is built, believed that “social or maternal instincts” are among the strongest we have; they are based in the ability to feel and express sympathy. Hence this one poor little emotion’s looming importance in everything that we are and that we do: Once again, biology has performed a feat of perfect majesty in making our faces unable to feign the expression of something that, to us, is worth more than gold. And Keltner is persuasive in making the case that every emotion has its own lie detector in the face: a muscle or two that is engaged only when the genuine article is felt. In a smile resulting from true happiness, then, the orbicularis oculi come into play (and later cause crow’s feet, unless botoxed into submission). When we experience embarrassment, a conciliatory emotion that serves to defuse aggression, the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex fires and causes a reaction in the expression that is so fleeting that we are not aware of how codified and precise it is. I don’t know about you, but learning such facts about our subliminal depths causes a chill to run through me (see chapter 12, “Awe”).

One of the greatest pleasures of this book is its surplus of OMG details. Take the origin of the kiss: It has less to do with what lyricists go on about than it does with pre-human primates’ chewing of food to soften it before mouth-to-mouth serving to the young; though Keltner does not mention it, this is also related to why your dog licks your face (but enough about predigested meals). Then there are the inexplicable mysteries of romantic love, arriving on updrafts of rose-scented desire: Actually, today’s wedding industry has nothing more to thank than a taste for meat that developed 1.6 million years ago in our hominid ancestors, resulting in males’ inability to hoard enough food to establish harems; we were left to pair-bonding instead. Similarly, a synopsis of the dynamics of smile and touch between mother and infant, the very engine of experience, is rife with amazement. Oxytocin rules.

The flights of the physical described here seem rich enough; why then the author’s periodic mention of, and the subtitle’s unfilled promise of constructive prescription toward, “the meaningful life” (is there only one? is it possible that a non-jen life of unhappiness, anxiety, or pathology is not meaningful?). It brings a whiff of uncharacteristic New Ageism to the proceedings.

As the front page of every newspaper makes disconcertingly apparent, we were made to compete. Now we know we were also made to cooperate. Each aspect of human being has given us stories of horrific inhumanity, stories of gorgeous selflessness; the fables of history are made from these. All of literature, come to think of it, arises from one or the other. We were born to be good, perhaps, but we were born to write of the times we were not.