Born to Be Good

“Born To Be Good” By Fred L Hammond Delibvered to the Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, MS on February 7 2010 ©  in participation with The Clergy Letter Project  for Evolution Weekend. 

We preach it every Sunday.  We sing it in our songs.  We write covenants around it.  And we have even been willing to die for its ideals.    

In our weekly affirmation we state that Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God. 

We even have the audacity to proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of all people and many of us are even beginning to expand that proclamation to all living creatures.   This claim goes against the orthodox doctrine that we are born in sin, that the heart is more deceitful above all else; a claim that is widely accepted in this nation but one I believe is a falsehood that is not serving us very well.   

The notion that we are loving people who seek to serve human need that will eventually result in humanity’s harmony with the divine is no longer just a fanciful pipe dream made up by religion. There is actually something hard-wired into our genetic code that elicits these actions on behalf of others.  

It is important for us to continue to foster these genetic codes within us not only for the betterment of humanity, a lofty ideal hardwired within us, but also for the over all general well-being and happiness of each of our lives.  A sort of salvation, if you will allow me to use that conservative religious phrase, that will if we nurture it within us, transform our lives into better human beings with a higher ratio of having a fulfilled life.  

Dacher Keltner in his book: Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life outlines how evolution, that ol’ survival of the fittest notion, has hardwired our humanity with the drive towards compassion, towards love, towards awe in our relationships with each other and with the universe.  We are in short, born to be good, born with inherent worth and dignity, born without sin and born with the capacity to be loving, nurturing, compassionate, happy individuals.   

There is a relatively new science that is looking into the effects of positive emotions.  Some of those emotions studied are compassion, love, and awe.  If we are a species that evolved on this planet, as opposed to being placed on this planet, then what benefits did these emotions have in our survival as a species that would encourage our species to develop them?  And are there ways to increase the presence of these emotions and the subsequent actions they induce?  

This new science, Keltner tells us is Jen Science, named in honor of Confucius concept of the same name.  He defines “Jen [as] the central idea in the teachings of Confucius, and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people.”   He adds, “a person of Jen ‘brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.’ Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.” 

So I would assume we all have had that jen moment when we did something for another person, not because we were told to do it, but because we wanted to do it, and felt upon completion of that task, a feeling of well-being flood over us.  It might have been something simple like bringing some fresh cut flowers to someone who has been ill or just because and their surprise and joy fills you with jen—a feeling of well-being.  Or perhaps you decided to run a marathon and raise money for cancer research.  The feeling you have in completing the marathon and more importantly the moment you give the money to the organization, you feel a moment of jen—a warm feeling of satisfaction.  

Jen science looks at the study of emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement and how they bring to completion a positive transaction between people.  The studiers of this new science have come up with a formula to determine the one’s sense of a meaningful life through what they call a jen ratio.  It is a fraction with all the positive interactions in the numerator position of the fraction and all the negative interactions in the denominator position.  The resulting number is a jen ratio.  

So you add up all the negative events that happened recently.  A driver cut you off in traffic, a person shoves you while waiting in line, hurtful comments from a friend.  Then add up all the positive events that happened recently.  A group of kids offered to rake your lawn, a stranger picks up a package you dropped, a delightful phone call from an old friend who had moved away, a friend picks up the tab of your lunch.  The three negative things go into your denominator or bottom position of the fraction and the four positive things go into the numerator or top position of the fraction and you reduce that down to a number which is 1.33.  That is your jen number and the higher it is, the likelihood of a rich and meaningful life.  

This has been used to gain a perspective on the health of marriages, of communities, and even of nations.   Healthier societies have higher jen scores. A study in 1996, after accounting for appropriate variables, such as economic development, revealed that for every 15 percent increase in trust of a nation’s citizens, their economic fortunes rose by $430.  Would it surprise you to note that the US has lost trust in its fellow citizens by 15% over the last 15 years according to Keltner?  Just look at the recent financial scandals of greed and people’s anger regarding these events.   

However, what makes us happy is not money and material gain but rather “the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, the connections we feel to communities.  When our jen ratios are high in our close relations, so are we.” 

There is a reason behind this statement.  At one point in time, our very survival as a species depended on these factors.  It may still today.   While in our pursuit for happiness we have sought to have the niceties of life, what we are missing, Keltner suggests “is the language and practice of emotions like compassion, gratitude, amusement, and wonder.” Increase these and our enjoyment of life will also increase immeasurably.  

How do we do that?  What in our genetic make-up pre-disposes us to experience these emotions?  Like our distant cousins, the primates and even other mammals, when we offer care to our children a chemical in our bodies increase, known as oxytocin.  This chemical is a pleasure producing chemical.  It was vital in our survival as a species to care for our children in a communal setting. This chemical is important to our emotional and mental health.  When it is present, our moods are elevated.  When it is not, our moods are depressed.  

Imagine what is happening in our society where more and more people are having fewer interactions with one another because we are sitting behind the computer, or Xbox, or TV and not in the company of people, where we can laugh, hug, play with one another. 

Keltner writes, “The emotions that promote the meaningful life are organized to an interest in the welfare of others.  Compassion shifts the mind in ways that increase the likelihood of taking pleasure in the improved welfare of others. Awe shifts the very contents of our self-definition, away from the emphasis of personal desires and preferences and toward that which connects us to others.  Neurochemicals (oxytocin) and regions of the nervous system related to these emotions promote trust and long-term devotion.  We have been designed to care about things other than the gratification of desire and the maximizing of self-interest.” 

What triggers these neurochemicals to aid in the development of trust and other positive emotions?  Research has shown that when a person smiles a warm smile, a region of the frontal lobes, that is also the center for processing rewards and goal directed action is activated.  It feels good to smile and it feels good to be smiled at.  

When receiving a smile, our heart rate lowers, our blood pressure lowers, and people receiving smiles are more likely to smile back.  These smiles trigger the release of another chemical, dopamine, another pleasure producing chemical in the brain.  Smiles elicit approach behaviors between people; they invite warmth, calmness, and intimacy.  People who receive and give smiles evoke a sense of trust and social well-being. 

Don’t believe me?  Let’s see what happens as you turn to the person sitting next to you and you give them a warm smile. 

Did I hear some laughter?  Laughter is an older behavior than language.  It is seen in our distant primate relatives.  The chimps and gorillas laugh when they play and tickle each other but humans laugh not only in play and tickling but in situations that need resolutions. Laughter in humans creates opportunities to see what is possible or what is absurd.  

It is another piece in our genetic make-up that enables us to be good with one another.  Laughter signals the brain to experience mirth and amusement.  It rewards mutual exchanges of collaborations.  It signals appreciation and understanding.  Each of us have our own unique laugh and therefore when laughter is evoked in the other, it is a building of trust.  Keltner suggests that laughter early in a business deal allows for mutual bargaining.  Co-workers use laughter to defuse tense work situations.  Friendships enjoy a sense of closeness when laughter occurs.  

Keltner discusses about his experience in participating in a panel that included seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  He writes the following:  “I was the last panelist for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to approach.  From eighteen inches away I came into contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Partially stooped in a bow, he made eye contact with me and clasped my hands.  His eyebrows were raised.  His eyes gleamed. His modest smile was poised near a laugh.  Emerging out of the bow and clasped hands, he embraced my shoulders and shook them slightly with warm hands.  As he turned to the audience, I had a … spiritual experience.  Goose bumps spread across my back like wind on water, starting at the base of my spine and rolling up to my scalp.  A flush of humility moved up my face from my cheeks to my forehead and dissipated near the crown of my head. Tears welled up, along with a smile.  I recalled a saying of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s:  ‘At the most fundamental level our nature is compassionate, and that cooperation, not conflict, lies at the heart of the basic principles that govern our human existence.’” 

What exactly was Keltner describing?  His Holiness the Dalai Lama had found a way through the use of touch to raise the jen ratio of Keltner’s experience.  The use of touch, good touch, triggers the release of another pleasure chemical, serotonin and endorphins.   Serotonin reduces the stress hormone cortisol—which is why massages feel so very good to us.  And endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and increase the sensation of pleasure. 

Through touch, through laughter, through smiling, people tend to become more cooperative in achieving group goals that benefit the group as a whole.  They tend to become reciprocal in generosity towards others, in sharing resources, in sharing parental care of children.  These are contagious behaviors that tend to get repeated with others again and again. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a master in being able to engender these behaviors and feelings in others.  

It is well documented that infants thrive when touched.  One of the families I served when I did AIDS ministry was a mother who wanted to adopt an infant born addicted to crack and with several AIDS defining diseases at birth.   The doctors told her not to because he said the child would not live to see his first birthday.  Last I knew the child was 16 years old, living without any active immune deficiency diseases.  I am convinced he lived because his adoptive mother was willing to touch him, hold him, caress him, coo with him, laugh with him. Touch enhances the body’s ability to reduce stress.  

Touch is an important aspect to our daily lives.  Pats on the back, handshakes, hands resting on the shoulders, all impact on our nervous system and increase the good chemicals that we need flowing in our bodies. Touch as studies with chimpanzees and humans reveal, encourages sharing and generosity over hoarding. 

Touching, Keltner states, increases trust and one of the reasons why over the centuries all cultures have developed a ritualized greeting; it might be a handshake, or a chest to chest embrace or a kiss on the cheeks.  But in all these rituals eventually touching is involved.    

Now if I haven’t convinced you yet, of the evolutionary wiring of our beings to be good.  Let me tell you of one more piece of evolutionary wiring in a very literal sense.  Our bodies have what is known as the vagus nerve.  Now this nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our bodies and it controls our autonomic functions such as heart, breathing, and digestion. It also is vital in the functions of facial muscles, vocalizations, hearing, etc.  But recent research seems to indicate that the vagus nerve also has another role to play in making us wired to be good. 

It has been noticed by researchers that when we listen to people describing suffering, we tend to sigh which slows down our heart rate and elicits within us compassion and trust for the speaker. The vagus nerve in addition to its autonomic functions enables the person to shift their care from self to others by transporting oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin through the body.  

It was found that images geared to elicit compassion triggered the vagus nerve by slowing down the heart rate.  People reported feeling increased care towards the people in the images.   

Philosopher Peter Singer wrote, “evolution has bequeathed humans with a sense of empathy—an ability to treat other people’s interest as comparable to one’s own.  Unfortunately, by default we apply it only to a very narrow circle of friends and family. People outside that circle were treated as subhuman and can be exploited with impunity.  But over history the circle has been expanded… from village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to other races to other sexes… and other species.” 

It is this belief that we recite every week in our covenant.   We echo the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha to love our neighbor as ourselves and to live with each other in loving kindness.   

One more study found that Tibetan monks’ brains after years of meditation on loving kindness had phenomenal activation in the left frontal lobes of their brains where compassion is thought to be supported.  Two researchers sought to have software engineers trained in meditative practices of mindfully focusing on loving kindness towards others.  After six weeks of practice, their brain scans showed an increase in activity in their left frontal lobes and an increased immune function.  Increased immune function apparently a side benefit.  

Compassion, trust, love towards others can be learned and developed.  It is developed in families where “parents are responsive, play and touch their children.”  I dare say it is developed in congregations where people enjoy each others company and come together to sing, to laugh, to hug, to dance, to share the fullness of our lives.  

The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy; practice compassion.”   Blessed Be.

All quotes are from Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments Off on Born to Be Good  
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