“How do we find meaning in life?”

Dacher Keltner

“How do we find meaning in life?”

Dacher Keltner

Professor of Psychology

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. A renowned expert in the science of human emotion, Dr. Keltner studies compassion and awe, how we express emotion, and how emotions guide our moral identities and search for meaning. He was a consultant for the film Inside Out and his expertise was called upon when emoji’s developed. His research interests also span issues of power, status, inequality, and social class. He is the author of The Power Paradox, the bestselling books Born to Be Good and Awe, and the coeditor of The Compassionate Instinct.


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KP Thank you so much for agreeing to come on the Examined Life podcast!

DK How could I turn it down – what a great title! And it’s good to be with you, Kenny.

KP Wonderful. Well, as you know, the theme of this project, Dacher, is to explore a question that a thinker such as yourself has been animated by or thinks that it might be a really helpful question to be asking ourselves. So I wonder whether we could just dive straight into that and explore what question you have been preoccupied by, professionally and or personally.

DK Yeah, I think that you know, the question that I’ve really been intrigued with for 20 years, and in my science and then in my teaching, is how does the individual find the meaningful life? You know, in the science of happiness we differentiate between sensory pleasures you have a wonderful meal and you feel good and then you know social relationships and all the delights that those bring. And then, more recently, in the last five years, there’s been this interest in something that’s a little bit, I don’t want to say deeper, but more complicated which is meaning, right, which is what really matters to me, what really brings whatever I’m doing in my life purpose, and then how does it fit in a kind of a larger narrative of life, right? And so I have been just thinking about and seeking to study and bring to our public discourse how we find meaning in life.

KP Gosh, what a wonderful question. You mentioned the kind of academic study of happiness of which you are part, but it’s a question that sounds as much personal as it is professional. Is that right?

DK Yeah, you know, I mean, it’s interesting when you, when you look at happiness and this vast scientific terrain and terrain and inquiry across all kinds of different disciplines we’ve been thinking about what makes us happy for a long time and you know you can find the people who love delight and aesthetic pleasure and sensory pleasure, right, you can find the people who really thrive in, you know, achievement or success. And you find people who love social relationships. And then there’s this little kind of individual that really is intrigued by meaning and obsessed with meaning. And I’m one of those people.

You know I love good food and I love relationships and like, but I’ve always, since I was a little kid, like what’s, what’s the whole point of this, you know, and and that turns out to be a big question in this new literature on wellbeing and and for me personally, you know it was really it’s. You know I grew up without religion, I grew up in a very, almost countercultural type of context raised by, you know, kind of activist parents, artists, and my mom taught literature and they were really like, you know, it’s great to feel pleasure, it’s great to have the most wonderful relationships, but really always be wondering what’s the point of your life, and so it is indeed, I’m embarrassed to say say, a personal inquiry as well may I ask like, so this, there’s so much I’d like to go into and I’m I’m 100 with you in terms of this kind of the question that animates me what does it mean to have a meaningful life?

KP But I suppose we could have meaning with a, with a big m, like there is a meaning to life and we are to discover it, or the kind of slightly more postmodern meaning is something we create in our lives. Are you approaching it kind of from both or one angle.

DK Yeah, I think both are true, right. I think that you know, in some sense, evolution and the history of life on Earth has brought to the human species realms of meaning that we can find our purpose in right.Our relationship to the natural world is a fundamental source of almost spiritual meaning for humans around the world Our relationship to music, our relationship to visual art, our relationship to morality and the moral beauty of other people in all right, those things are realms that have been crafted or shaped by evolution, that we find in our, in our live lives, that bring us meaning and then, at the same time, so much of it is constructed in cultures and individuals, given our family histories and our political moment in history where, you know, I am a child, as a personal example of the late 60s, raised in a radical place, laurel Canyon, by two early counterculture parents, and I had given that history in that moment and what they taught me in the words and the concepts I had to find meaning in art and in, you know, forms of activism and going into prisons to see what is the human character. 

So it’s, both are true and that’s what’s. You know, I really shy away from these Manichaean debates. It’s either constructed or it’s biological. Both are rich, and true and inform us how we can find what matters to us.

KP It feels like this question of meaning is especially pertinent right now. I’ve become aware of various people John Vervaeke or Jonathan Rousen talking about a meaning crisis. We’re in a kind of crisis of meaning at the moment. Does that kind of occur to you as well?

DK Oh, you know, I. You know, if you just take the United States and perhaps the UK and Western Europe, look like this you know, just historic rise. And I teach young people, right, who are on their quest for meaning. I’ve taught them for 33 years. You know I have 660 Berkeley students in my happiness class really pursuing what is meaningful to them.

And you know, there are all these forces that have led to a meaning crisis, right, the de-churching of young people. They’re moving away from ritual and dogma, if you will, for a lot of good reasons, but they don’t have that. The breakdown of intergenerational contact and community, the. You know, the. I think one of the real shortcomings of the new technologies, the smartphones and digital platforms, is they’re. They’re flat, they. They are flat temporally. They only engage us in the present moment. They are flat temporally. They only engage us in the present moment, self-focus, where we’ve lost sight of the deeper meaning to our lives and, as a result, the meaning crisis is real.

You know, in the United States, the opioid crisis is a crisis of meaning, you know, and that’s one of the central killers of young people today. That’s one of the central killers of young people. Today, the suicide crisis, which is at historic highs for young people, is a crisis of meaning. Depression historic highs in the United States is a crisis of meaning Polarization. You know, like why a person would look at Trump and think like, this guy is a reasonable steward of a democracy. That’s a crisis of meaning, right, we’ve lost the big narratives of our lives and we’ve lost our pathway to what we find meaningful. And it’s interesting, you know, just to like the crisis in America. You know people are no longer enrolling in courses of the humanities literature, history, art, history. I asked my undergrads today, why would the Holocaust have ever occurred? And they’re like, remind me of what that is. So we have a lot of work to do to restore meaning.

KP Here too, the humanities are declining and as, as our cultures become, I think, more technological, um, it’s, it’s not an accident, it’s not just like the hand of society. It’s actually transforming the way that we, uh, we interact with the world and attend to it. Yeah, um, but as it’s become more instrumental and utilitarian as a way of looking at life, it stripped us of the relationships that we did have with the natural world, with one another, with meaningful work and so on. And yeah, as you say, that question has sharp teeth, like where do I find meaning when that’s all gone? How do I find my way back?

DK Yeah, you know, I I really feel we’re at this, this apex of the crisis of individualism in some sense, and there are remarkable strengths to the historic rise of individualism.

You know, beginning, some would say, in the age of enlightenment.

Individual rights you know, beginning, some would say, in the age of enlightenment individual rights, the freedoms we have to think what we want, to feel, what we want, you know, to have the identity that we would like to.

That feels right, you know, and it’s a remarkable development in human history and at the same time it has separated us from people and from the natural world. It has built into us, thank you for, you know, a utilitarian, instrumental, transactional view of life of you know, it’s all fungible, we can buy it and trade it, you know, and it has blinded us to these deep truths, like we’re all part of this interconnected social system and ecosystem, that there are things that you can’t buy, you know, and that we are also collective and not separate from each other in profound ways that science is showing. So I hope these meaning crises will get us back to some of those complementary truths, to who we are, that we’re collective, we’re storytellers, there are things that are sacred, the idea that I think in the academy we challenge the idea oh, the sacred is just constructed, but no, there are pretty deep things that are sacred around the world and I think we need to remind ourselves of these deep tendencies we have.

KP And I think we need to remind ourselves of these deep tendencies we have. I’ve heard voices like yours, but there are other ones too. Whether you’re talking about, I suppose, michael Sandel and the morality of markets, or what the Harvard flourishing project has come out with, the good life, there are like signs catching up with grandma right. These are things that generations ago, you were told yeah, you need to kind of be part of ritual, part of collective society, part of yeah, there’s intrinsic worth to things that you don’t have a price tag on. And now people like yourself are discovering the kind of neurophysiology, of why that actually, why that works out.

DK Yeah, yeah, you know, I mean, this stuff is old, you know. Like you know, finding your meaning meaning in music, which, which people do around the world, that’s old, I mean, that’s music is 80,000 years old. The archeological records suggest we sing similar songs around the world to our children, that’s old. Finding meaning in visual patterns and spiritual tendencies, all deep human universals that are old, but we’ve lost sight of them In this individualistic, globalized world. We don’t practice the rituals, we don’t listen to music intentionally, we really are deeply disconnected from nature, which is remarkable.

And when you think about what we were like a couple, three, 400 years ago, yeah, so I am proud to be the scientist who says grandma was right. And, by the way, so were those indigenous peoples around the world. They’ve been writing about meaning and transcendence and a different sense of self and consciousness, people like Dr Uriah Salidwin. So you know that, in part, science reminds us of the enduring truths, the perennial truths. But I will say, you know, the neurophysiology really matters, right, that awe, as one example, shuts down parts of the brain that are associated with rumination and self-focus, activates the vagus nerve and branches of your immune system that are healthy, right? So that’s important knowledge for us today, as we confront this crisis of meaning yeah, it’s fascinating and I’d love to dig into that.

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