Point Of View


Our Potential for Good: Altruism as an Evolutionary Imperative

November/December 2011


It takes nothing more than a casual glance at the daily headlines to corroborate our worst impressions of humanity—greed, violence, and pervasive self-interest rule the day. Dig a bit deeper and you soon discover that everyone from Freudians to theologians to evolutionary psychologists seem to agree that we have a fundamentally hedonistic nature that promotes self-preservation above all else. Only through great effort, the thinking goes, can we overcome our innate selfishness and begin to blaze a more virtuous path for ourselves. There’s at least one social psychologist who refuses to go along with that conventional wisdom, however.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner says the focus on our selfish behavior greatly underestimates our natural biological tendency toward altruism. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Greater Good Science Center, Keltner is at the forefront of the Positive Psychology movement. In his book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, he draws on biological, psychological, and sociological research to show that we not only can, but must be good: it’s wired into our brains. He believes in a formula for happiness called the “jen ratio,” whereby we focus on promoting the good in others. In what follows, he shares his thoughts on politics, the jen ratio, and the latest research in Positive Psychology.

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RH: Some criticize President Obama for playing too nice…

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