My work as a psychologist—and my life as a father—has led me to believe that a simple fraction can tell us whether or not we're truly happy. Put aside your justified suspicions for a moment and consider the following ratio–we'll call it the jen ratio, in honor of the Confucian concept jen, which refers to a multilayered mixture of humanity, benevolence, and kindness not well captured by any word or phrase in the English language. A person of jen, Confucius observes, "wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others," and "brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion."
In the denominator of the jen ratio place recent actions in which someone has behaved in selfish, malevolent fashion, bringing the bad in others to completion — the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars in front of you, pealing away; the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well heeled passersby. Above this, in the numerator of the ratio, list recent benevolent acts of others, which brought the good in others to completion – a kind hand on your back in a crowded subway car; the woman who laughs melodiously as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. The greater the value of the jen ratio, the more humane your world. The smaller the number becomes, the clearer it is that you are living in a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog world, bloody in tooth and claw.
Let's take the jen ratio for a test drive. An after school moment at my daughters' playground yields the following: In the numerator, two boys laugh, giving each other noogies on the head; girls do handstands and cartwheels, giggling at their butt-thumping mistakes; on a grassy field, laughing kids dog pile on a young boy deliriously clasping the football to his chest. In the denominator, a boy calls a smaller boy baboon breath, in measured, low tones; two girls whisper, heads askance, about another girl who tries to enter into their game of unicorn. This minute of playground life yields a jen ratio of 3/2, or 1.5. A pretty good scene.
Let's compare that with… in an interminable, eight minute line to buy stamps. I see 24 varieties of exasperation, from sighs to glares to threatening groans of the bureaucratically imprisoned, and one guy laugh 3 times. 3/24 = .125. Not such an uplifting time. And then how about two minutes of a video game? That's easy: 38 heads explode/0; it's infinitely malevolent.
One can apply the jen ratio to any realm — our interior life, the esprit of a family in a photograph, the face of a loved one at a poignant moment in time, the tenor of a dinner party or family reunion, the ebbs and flows of intimacy in the life long relations of two sisters, the rhetoric of presidents, the spirit of historical eras, the good will of a neighborhood, more satisfying and more trying periods of a marriage.
Of course, a high jen ratio does not define what is right or good. Sitcoms, cheerleaders, servers at fastfood restaurants, and beauty pageant contestants, on the surface, yield higher jen ratios than any page of Dostoevsky, most paintings of Van Gogh, and the films of Scorscese. Think of the jen ratio as a snapshot, though, of the state of your life as you perceive it, and as it truly is.
About The Author
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.