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Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
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Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  465 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
In this startling study of human emotion, Dacher Keltner investigates an unanswered question of human evolution: If humans are hardwired to lead lives that are “nasty, brutish, and short,” why have we evolved with positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and compassion that promote ethical action and cooperative societies? Illustrated with more than fifty photogra ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published October 5th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2009)
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Modern Girl
Dec 08, 2011 rated it liked it
I bought this book and started reading it because it was advertized as a sociological study of how people are inherently good. The first chapter introduced the concept of jen, which comes from Eastern philosophy and means all the positive social interactions, and positive social capital. The first chapter was amazing and I thought I was going to read a boo about Buddhist philosophy, or media analyses, or a sociological critique that we're all motivated for good.

But that's not what I got. I inste
Kathryn Bashaar
The author, a professor at UC Berkeley, explains how he and his students and other researchers are demonstrating that positive emotions and behavior such as smiling, touching, and caring for others, are biologically based and have their origins in our evolution as a species who must care for our young over a very extended number of years. Some of it gets a little dry and boring, but it is very uplifting to read of biological evidence of how "fearfully and wonderfully made" we are not only as phy ...more
This book title is really misleading. The majority of it is really about the physiology of human interaction. The book starts out proposing a formula for happiness which is basically good stuff divided by bad stuff. The result is a measurable happiness quotient. I don't really see this as useful as it's relative (think Chris Farley's religious devotion and charity divided by his drugs, alcohol and escort patronage) and disregards scale. I put this in more of a free-wheelin self-help category ver ...more
Apr 05, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book makes the compelling point that human nature is not exclusively selfish, as epitomized in Dawkins' title "The Selfish Gene", but instead exhibits, in many respects, cooperation and compassion. Keltner correctly notes that Darwin himself first suggested this, insisting on "the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive." What's more, this instinct of trust and compassion has expanded in recent times to extend beyond the family. As Pete ...more
Aug 27, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Totally biased, simplistic, and overly optimistic, but some of the studies presented were interesting. There are much better accounts of our evolutionary nature than this, including Michael Shermer's Science of Good and Evil and anything by Steven Pinker. Barbara Oakley's Evil Genes also gives a different perspective.

This guy has an agenda, and he doesn't want to present any evidence or interpret any evidence contrary to it. He would make a great guest on Oprah. Adam Smith was unfairly disparage
Marissa Morrison
Jul 31, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Definitely worth reading. The presentation of Darwin's work with emotion and body language was especially interesting. It was also good to learn about the vagus nerve, how men and women communicate differently through touch, and how encountering the Dalai Lama makes people feel good for days. Ultimately I wish that this book had been longer and more detailed.
Keats Snideman
Still reading it..finding it very thought provoking and provides some great insight into our evolutionary development of cooperation, compassion, and doing good for others. Its got a little bit of evolutionary biology, nueroscience, psychology; pretty cool.
Mar 18, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: red
"Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life", by Dacher Keltner, is a book by a UC-Berkeley professor of psychology; it's about how and why people are able to be good and/or happy.

Dacher Keltner's "Born to Be Good" is in a whole different world, emotionally, than what you see in the daily news. Rather than reading it with a feeling of tension, a mix of excitement and dread, reading "Born to Be Good" was light, optimistic, and reassuring. It occasionally ventured into territory that seemed
Jan 11, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Got this book, because I listened to Keltner's lectures on emotions to psych majors at Berkeley and found them fascinating. Unfortunately, his lectures are better than his writing. The book has some great pieces, but it doesn't all come together in a way that kept me really interested. Towards the end, it felt like a slog. So for the good parts: I like how he relates the behaviors and emotions of being "good" to evolutionary sciene (he has chapters on embarrasment, laughter, kissing, smiling, to ...more
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have read this a couple of times and have it as an audio book, I listen to it often on my way to work and have referenced it many times.
Linda Tuplin
This book had a lot of interesting parts, enough that I will keep it as a reference, but a bit too detailed scientifically for me right now.
Diana Suddreth
Goodness! It took me over two years to read this book, and here's why. Although I was lured in by the promise of learning about human's innate goodness (something I do not actually believe but was hoping for insight), instead I quickly became bored with facial patterns. So, I put the book away from a very long time, and just recently pulled it out to finish mainly because I was working on my book challenge and needed to finish something to count. The funny thing is that I rather enjoyed the chap ...more
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Religious history tells us that we are born of original sin and we need the help of a supreme being to help us be good and find salvation. Political history says human nature is born of competition and self interest or survival of the fittest but Born to Be Good tells us the Scientific evidence behind why we are wired to be good. That the evolutionary process has born out the traits of cooperation and compassion because they are what is most advantageous for our survival. It was very enlightenin ...more
Jul 09, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2013
Another book that I have no idea why I put it on my to-read list. (It's like messages from my past self.) I almost didn't get past the first chapter, because it was sort of bizarre. I guess the whole jen thing was supposed to be a frame, but it didn't seem to tie anything together. So if you think that's weird, don't worry about it, the rest of the book is pretty much about how facial expressions can affect mood and how people are wired to not be a-holes (the current American political climate n ...more
Mahala Helf
Keltner is a working researcher as well as a prosocial activist. His research is fascinating. His footnotes are a treasure chest. His prose, though, can be confusing, most noticeably in his attempts to present opposing theories from the past and in his use of multi-syllabic latinate words and long sentences.
The anecdotes about his life & family and many of his philosophically based assertions were distracting at best.
The topic is crucial and fascinating--I hope in his next popular article
Stephen Burns
The first three chapters are somewhat startling and encouraging, and Keltner riffs on the idea that humans are not born selfish. (In refutation of Dawkins' work from the 1970's, in particular THE SELFISH GENE.) He uses Ekner's work, which has been used a great deal the past five or six years by writers like Malcolm Gladwell. His concept of the 'ja ratio', in essence that the good we do fosters changes not only in our life but biologically is tremendously thought provoking and encouraging. Unfort ...more
May 06, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not the most accessible writing, but the premise is a solid and interesting one. The author posits that humans are not selfish, agressive creatures, but instead are hard-wired to be caring and cooperative. The book explores the gamut of emotions and facial expressions and how they relate to the evolution of human society. He believes that the secret to happiness is in the jen ratio - the balance of good and bad in your life - and that this ratio can be changed if we learn to recognize and embrac ...more
A very enjoyable read. Keltner is an entertaining writer and the neuroscience and psychology is top notch. A refreshing change from the dismal topics usually focussed on in the study of psychopathology, Keltner takes us through the cutting edge science on the more redeeming human instincts which underlie gratitude, laughter, embarassment, love compassion and awe. I recommend this read for anyone interested in human nature. Eat your heart out Hobbes.
Jul 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Keltner takes an in-depth look at positive emotions and acts that further those. He highlights Darwin's work about emotions and shows how small and simple expressions and gestures enhance the well-being of others and also of oneself. I enjoyed the details about the different ways in which facial expressions communicate and spread good feelings.
Mark Flanagan
Apr 06, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Mark by: Shawn
Fascinating stuff about the evolution of positive emotions and behaviors - why we laugh, smile, touch; how dance evolved; what our minute facial movements really mean - Darwin shows up, as does the Dalai Lama. [ full review ]
Steve Baru
Mar 10, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book leaves the reader in a state of bliss. As interesting as the research is, the book still seems like a lecture; not really entertaining. That's not a bad thing. I'd like to see Diana Ackerman take this research and put her magic to it, maybe the Natural History of the Smile?
Aug 12, 2010 rated it it was ok
this book was not at all what i expected. basically, it's an evolutionary look at different emotions and how they are experienced in the body and on the face. that's not what i thought i was getting into from the descriptions i read.
The premise is that we are genetically programmed to be helpful and cooperative not violent. It is linked to our survival to be good to each other. I liked it, but is science so not necessarily an easy read.
Stephen Lewis
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a very well-written book that describes the scientific triggers and reasons behind many of our positive emotions. I think this book has the capacity to change the way one perceives other people and how we interact with each other. I highly recommend this book.
Mar 15, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
This was on my "to be read" list for months, and in 3 weeks, I just can't get through it. Dry as toast, and I still don't get how my facial expressions make my life meaningful. Maybe it gets better after page 155, but somehow, I doubt it.
Mar 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: personal
Another good book about how being good can pay off
Dec 10, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If nothing else, this book should make you feel more optimistic about the present and future state of humanity.
Dec 13, 2008 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Saw this book in O Magazine.
Feb 11, 2009 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Saw this in Time magazine.
Aug 14, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author's premise is that humans are wired for cooperation, not competition. He proved his point fairly well, but not perfectly. I like the premise, though!
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Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, director of the Greater Good Science Center, and coeditor of Greater Good magazine. His research focuses on pro-social emotions, power, and moral reasoning."
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“These scientific studies countervail the influential claims of the Kants, Nietzsches, and Rands about the nature of human goodness. Compassion is not a blind emotions that catapults people pell-mell toward the next warm body that walks by. Instead, compassion is exquisitely attuned to harm and vulnerability in others. Compassion does not render people tearful idlers, moral weaklings, or passive onlookers but individuals who will take on the pain of others, even when given the chance to skip out on such difficult action or in anonymous conditions. The kindness, sacrifice, and jen that make up healthy communities are rooted in a bundle of nerves that has been producing caretaking behavior for over 100 million years of mammalian evolution.” 1 likes
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