Dr. Dacher Keltner

Which positive emotion has the most “awesome” health benefits?

The New York Times magazine this weekend will have an interesting article in its health column, The Well, about research into the health benefits of positive emotions.

The researchers were interested in looking at levels of a compound called interleukin-6, which is associated with general inflammation in the body. Low levels of interleukin-6 correspond to good health.

In the study, students were asked “about their normal dispositions and the extent to which they had recently felt seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The students also provided a saliva sample. While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.”

The lead author of the study, Dachel Keltner says that “a primary attribute of an awe-inspiring event is that it ‘will pass the goose-bumps test.’”

Rather to my surprise, the students in the study reported feeling awe three or more times a week. Unfortunately there wasn’t any indication of the circumstances under which they experienced this emotion, but Keltner points out that music and nature are common triggers of awe.

Keltner also suggests that we seek out awe, which I think is a great idea. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just confer health benefits, but which leads to life being more meaningful and enjoyable. I welcome the reminder to seek out awe. For me, there’s no need to listen to music or watch a sunset in order to experience awe; all I have to do is to become aware of how miraculous it is that I experience. Simply becoming aware that I am aware, and recognizing that I don’t even know what awareness is, is enough to trigger goosebumps. But music and sunsets are lovely too!

Read More

“To believe in the heroic makes heroes” Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

In the Path of Freedom, a 1st century meditation manual that I’ve mentioned a few times because it’s the earliest source I know of for cultivating lovingkindness and compassions in stages, we’re asked first of all to connect with mudita (appreciation) in the following way:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!”

So this brings up the question of who we know (or know of) who is like that. And it also brings up the question of whether we actually want there to be people like that. But let’s deal with those one at a time…

Upatissa, the author of the Path to Freedom, doesn’t say that we have to personally know this exemplary person. In fact it’s clear that we might only know them from reputation. But it may also be someone we are fortunate enough to know personally. So who do we know (personally or at a remove) who has qualities that are esteemed by others, and who is at peace and joyful?

I’m fortunate to have personal experience of a number of people who fit the bill, some of whom I have lived with and who I therefore know quite well. These are people who are scrupulously ethical, and very careful in how they talk about others. I would often find myself complaining about someone, and one of my more skillful friends would respond by saying something that, for example, put the other person’s actions into a broader context and made those actions seem more forgivable. I can think of a couple of people who I have never known to do or say anything unkind. Whenever they have problems they always approach them from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings. And these are people who are often joyful, dignified, and at peace.

Perhaps I’m fortunate in this — I just don’t know. Or perhaps you know many such people.

What about those we know only by reputation? I think of people like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, and Maya Angelou. These people are giants in their own ways, and demonstrated personality traits that are highly “esteemed.” The Dalai Lama is the most obviously joyful, while the others seem to exhibit more of a sense of peace and dignity. I feel ennobled simply by calling them to mind.

Psychologists call this feeling of emotional uplift “elevation.” Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, studies elevation, which stimulates the vagus nerve (also involved in compassion) and leads to “a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, has written, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Feelings of inspiration also lead to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with love and bonding.

Now there’s the second question. Do you want there to be heroes? Some people don’t. What’s your reaction when you hear that someone is admired and is joyful and at peace? Does your cynicism kick in and start doubting? Do you imagine the Dalai Lama’s smile leaving his face as soon as he leaves the stage, and him yelling at his attendants? Do you cast around for some negative fact from the life of Eleanor Roosevelt that “balances” or negates the inspiring role she played in the civil rights movement?

If you do this kind of thing, you’re not alone. We’ve got used to heroes being exposed as having feet of clay. It’s still common to hear Mother Theresa held up as a paragon of compassion, but it’s also more common to hear that she was actually a very unkind person who seemed to take joy in watching people suffer.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t investigate such things and write honest biographies. If the truth is that Mother Theresa was a monster, then let that come out. But I do suggest that you don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that there must be some dark undercurrent to the lives of heroic people. Because I think one of the reasons we sometimes don’t want there to be heroes is pride. One of the ways we seek a sense of security and wellbeing is through the “worldly wind” of status, which often involves thinking that we’re better than others, or at least thinking that others are not better than us. And so it can be tempting to find fault in order to drag others down to our level.

However, I suggest that it’s unwise to expect perfection in anyone. Everyone makes mistakes, and causes others harm. It’s always possible to find fault. I can know that Nelson Mandela had an affair and hurt his family, but still regard him as someone to admire. I can know that Maya Angelou worked as a prostitute and pimp, and still have immense respect for the person she evolved into. These flaws and mistakes actually help me to have greater respect for my heroes, not less. Their humanness, as shown by their difficulties and vulnerability, makes them easier to relate to — if I respond with compassion rather than judgement.

And they don’t have to be perfect examples of joy or peace. I’m sure Roosevelt’s life was troubled. I don’t have personal insight into Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou’s day-to-day states of mind, but I doubt that they’re happy or at peace all the time. But they’re still admirable.

So let’s think about heroes. Let’s allow ourself to have heroes, without either being cynical or denying their flaws. It’ll help make us better people, and will help us help others. As Disraeli said, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

PS. You can see all of the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

Read More

Taking kindness to heart (Day 2)

Woman holding string of LED lights in shape of a heart

Today, as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, where we focus on the development of basic kindness and compassion, we’ll continue with the practice of self-metta.

I’m suggesting a simple practice today to help you bring a more kindly attitude into your daily life.

It’s simply this: be aware of your heart.

I’m not talking about noticing your heart beating, but about bringing awareness to the central part of your chest, and coming back to that over and over again during the day.

This area of the body is very important in terms of emotion, which is why “emotion” and “the heart” are virtually synonymous. And even more crucially, “love” and “the heart” are also virtually synonymous. The heart symbol — ❤ — means “love,” after all.

One reason for this is that there’s a large nerve called the vagus that runs down the center of the chest. The vagus is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back to calm, rest, and balance. And the vagus is very important in mediating feelings of love and compassion. When it’s activated, there can be a feeling of warmth and openness around the heart.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that lovingkindness meditation significantly increased “vagal tone” over a period of seven weeks. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve and is a sign of good vagal health (it’s analogous to “muscle tone”).

Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago has said that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion.

And Dr. Dacher Keltner, the author of Born to Be Good and Codirector of the Greater Good Science Center, points out that young children who have a stronger vagal tone are the ones who step in when they see another child being bullied. They’re also more cooperative and helpful to their peers.

Simply taking your attention to the heart can help to activate the vagus nerve. So try this:

  • Become aware of the heart area.
  • Notice what emotions and sensations are present — without judgement. It doesn’t matter what’s there: whether you’re feeling neutral, or even feeling crappy. That’s just where you happen to be starting from in this moment.
  • Let go, as best you can, or any tension, letting a sense of softness emerge.
  • Send thoughts of lovingkindness to that part of the body, saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at ease.
  • Repeat many times daily, whenever you pause, or whenever you’re taking a break or doing some routine task, like driving or showering, where your mind would normally wander.

Let go of any yearning for results; that’s simply grasping, and it’s also a rejection of your experience. Just let things unfold in their own time.

You also might want to bring this into your sitting practice of lovingkindness, which (as part of the challenge) we’re doing for at least five minutes a day. I’d recommend doing more than this, but five minutes is your emergency fall-back position for those days when it’s especially hard to get on the cushion.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]

If you’ve missed the previous posts for 100 Days of Lovingkindness, you can start here.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Read More

“The Compassionate Brain” free seven-part video series

For Sounds True, I’m hosting a free Seven-part video series with extraordinary guests – The Compassionate Brain – that will give you effective ways to change your brain and heart and life. So far over 25,000 people have signed up for this free series, and I hope you will join us – and help spread the word to others.

The series began October 8, 2012, and runs on seven consecutive Monday nights, 8-9 pm Eastern time, through November 19. You can go back and watch the archived videos from previous interviews.

Each week, I’m interviewing a world-class scholar/teacher (in order): Richie Davidson, Dan Siegel, Tara Brach, Dachar Keltner, Kelly McGonigal, Kristin Neff, and Jean Houston – where they’ll discuss different ways to use the power of neuroplasticity – how the mind can change the brain to transform the mind – to open the heart, build courage, find compassion, forgive oneself and others, speak and act from both kindness and strength, and heal the world.

Here is a brief video in which I explain what this series is about:

You can watch live each Monday or see the archived videos anytime if you miss a session. These unique conversations with first-rate experts are freely offered – along with their practical tools for cooperation, empathy, and kindness. (The series is particularly timely in light of a U.S. Presidential election occurring right in the middle of it.)

Our world has needs at different levels (economic, environmental, cultural, etc.) but the common factor in all of these is the human brain, whose ancient fight-or-flight circuits are dragging humanity toward if not over the brink. If more people and more brains – and thus more hearts and hands – turned toward compassion, that could make a real difference.

So I would really appreciate your support for this series. You could sign up for it yourself at https://www.compassionatebrain.com/ and – please – spread the words and tell others about it. It’s interesting, solid, practical, convenient, and free. And, one brain at a time, it might help nudge things in a better direction.

Wishing you the best,


The Compassionate Brain Topics and Guests:

    • Session 1: How the Mind Changes the Brain
      Monday, October 8, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –4)
      With Dr. Richie Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin and co-editor of The Asymmetrical Brain
    • Session 2: Mindfulness of Oneself and Others
      Monday, October 15, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –4)
      With Dr. Daniel Siegel, executive director of the Mindsight Institute and author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
    • Session 3: Cultivating a Forgiving Heart
      Monday, October 22, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –4)
      With Dr. Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha


  • Session 4: The Evolution of Compassion: From Gene to Meme
    Monday, October 29, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –4)
    With Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
  • Session 5: Balancing Compassion and Assertiveness
    Monday, November 5, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –5)
    With Dr. Kelly McGonigal, senior teacher and consultant for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
  • Session 6: The Power of Self-Compassion
    Monday, November 12, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –5)
    With Dr. Kristin Neff, professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind
  • Session 7: Compassion in the Wider World
    Monday, November 19, 2012, from 8–9 pm Eastern Time (GMT –5)
    With Dr. Jean Houston, co-founder of The Foundation for Mind Research and author of The Possible Human: A Course in Enhancing Your Physical, Mental, and Creative Abilities
Read More

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.