The Evolution of Kindness: An Evening with Dacher Keltner

Dodging other vehicles in the pursuit of a parking spot on the Syracuse University hill had me questioning my decision to forego an evening of television, wine and sweatpants. However, once I’d snagged a parking spot and found my way to the restaurant my nerves calmed down and I began to think about the delicious falafels at King David’s restaurant.

 Photo by ajfletch/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by ajfletch/iStock / Getty Images

By six o’clock there were four of us ready to eat and we headed inside the restaurant. I had met the other women before, but was glad for the chance to get to know them better. We enjoyed great food and conversation and a number of laughs. We paid our bill and then headed to the Syracuse University campus for a lecture on kindness.

Even though I’ve lived in the area for nine years, this was my first physical foray onto the campus. I’d driven through a couple of times to drop people off or pick them up, but until last night I hadn’t realized just how many slopes must be climbed to reach your destination. Let’s just say my inhaler came in handy.

We arrived twenty minutes early for the lecture and were able to secure seats near the front. We had a lively conversation around our favorite books and the difference between European movies and American movies. I confess I like the happy endings in American movies.

We could see the speaker Dacher Keltner getting ready and he was even easier on the eyes than in his picture, which I confess was part of the reason I’d been willing to don appropriate clothing for public places. Just a fancy way of saying I hate wearing a bra.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. His talk covered the evolution of kindness and compassion and stressed that when we practice kindness and compassion not only does it benefit the collective, but it makes us happier and less stressed.

He started the lecture by describing behaviors of primates that indicate they feel compassion and then demonstrated that all humans have the same basic sounds to express emotions such as interest or compassion. He showed scans of the human brain in an FMRI showing that the region of our brain that lights up with compassion is near the brain stem indicating this has been part of our ancestry for a very long time.

His lecture shifted to talk about ways we can improve our own happiness through relaxation and compassion. Many of the items he mentioned interested me, deep breathing, mindfulness, gratitude, but the one that really struck me was gazing on nature. He spoke about an experiment they did at Berkeley where the subject stared at gorgeous trees or a magnificent building for a full minute. At the end of the minute they had a person drop a handful of pens on the ground near them. The study showed that not only did the subjects who stared at trees feel happier; they picked up more pens than those who stared at the building.

I’m really glad I attended the lecture and have signed up for the emails as I want to live a happier life. But for now, I think I’ll walk away from the computer and go stare at a tree.

Gwen Bradshaw is a business analyst, wife, mother and grandmother. In her spare time she enjoys acting with her improv comedy team and writing about her deconversion from Christianity.