While hiding from the Nazis who would soon transport her to the concentration camp where she died, Anne Frank wrote a line that has sparked endless debate ever since. "Despite everything," wrote the doomed Jewish schoolgirl, "I believe that people are really good at heart."
Dacher Keltner agrees. The UC Berkeley psychology professor, who is also the Greater Good Science Center's research director and the executive editor of Greater Good magazine, studies the social function of emotions. At the Chevron Auditorium in the International House (2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley) on Friday, May 15, Keltner hosts "Mindfulness, Health, and Well-Being," a seminar exploring how the deliberate practice of trust, empathy, gratitude, kindness, and other positive behaviors can benefit both body and mind.
Keltner says he's deeply indebted to Charles Darwin, whose many days spent watching apes at the London Zoo led to "his amazingly astute observations about sympathy and laughter and play." Homo sapiens shares with its closest evolutionary kin "a set of emotions that are the key to being happy," Keltner says, "and those are emotions like compassion and embarrassment and awe and amusement."
Wait — embarrassment? How can the way we feel when our pants fall down in public possibly make us smile? As he will discuss at the seminar, Keltner has observed during his own experiments that the startle reflex is an instantaneous display of the raw self, of a true vulnerability by which living creatures reveal themselves to each other and sometimes appease each other, seeking and acquiring forgiveness, acceptance, and affection.
Can training ourselves to generate and cultivate certain emotions — including embarrassment — create positive long-term effects? Keltner thinks so: "In my own life, I have found that I'm happiest and giving to society most when I am experiencing emotions like modesty, embarrassment, compassion, and a sense of beauty."
We can help the world become a better place even by embarrassing each other. Having studied teasing for over fifteen years, Keltner believes that relationships improve when we lampoon one another — for instance, via playful pantomimes. In his view, this helps the recipients of the japes loosen up. Americans, he asserts, take themselves too seriously.
Also featured at the seven-hour seminar is a presentation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the world-renowned expert on mindfulness and author of such bestselling books as Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. The day concludes with a session on practical tips for manifesting positive emotions, drawing on cutting-edge research from psychology and neuroscience as well as common sense and ancient wisdom.
Keltner, whose book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, came out in January, says his work has affected his outlook on real life: "I have become more acutely aware of how good human beings are, and that there's hope for our species and hope for better communities." And programmed right into our DNA are "all these amazing emotions that evolution has designed that make us good to others." 8:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m., $109-$139. PeaceCenter.Berkeley.edu
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