On May 14, 2012, Greater Good Science Center Faculty Director Dacher Keltner delivered the commencement address for graduating psychology students at the University of California, Berkeley. We are proud to present the text of his speech.
In 1986, Ivan Boesky, of insider trading fame, gave a graduation speech on this very same Berkeley campus of free speech and Nobel laureates. That day he declared, “Greed is healthy.”
A year later in the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously turned that phrase into, “Greed is good.” This battle cry was part of a pendulum swing seen before in history, one that expressed a certain view of who we are as a species. We are selfish gratification machines. Happiness is found in material pursuits. Other people’s concerns are not our own. Altruism is an illusion. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good.
That phrase and its accompanying ideology was the mantra of my generation, and scientific studies show it brought us:
- Rises in loneliness and a loss of friends;
- A loss of trust in our communities and institutions;
- Increases in narcissism and decreases in empathy;
- Spikes in anxiety, to the point where 75 percent of Americans now say they are too stressed;
- and Humvees, Enron, the recent economic collapse, an insulated one percent, and levels of inequality in the United States that are literally shortening the lives of our citizens.
Our graduates have been trained in a discipline—psychological science—that applies the impartial rigors and open-minded inquiry of science to hypotheses like, “Greed is good.” And in any fashion that we test that hypothesis, it fails. Instead, we bring into focus a much different picture of human nature.
Sympathy is our strongest instinct
It begins with Charles Darwin, devoted father of 10. Say Darwin’s name today and most think of “survival of the fittest” and evolutionary struggles that are bloody in tooth in claw. Those were interpretations placed upon Darwin by the Social Darwinists who followed him. Ideologues like Herbert Spencer turned Darwin’s ideas into a justification for domination by the strong of the weak.
Darwin saw things differently. In the wake of nursing his beloved daughter Annie to her death at the age of 10, Darwin came to understand that the suffering of the young is essential to our evolution, and that sympathy is our strongest instinct. In Darwin’s words:
Sympathy will have increased through natural selection, for those communities, with the most sympathetic members, will flourish and raise the greatest number of offspring.
The reason for such a claim is simple. As we began to walk upright on the African Savannah, our pelvises narrowed even as our frontal lobes expanded dramatically to accomodate our gift for gab and love of language. The end result: Our babies had to be born prematurely to get those giant heads through the birth canal. Our offspring are the most vulnerable mammal on the face of the Earth.
This game-changer in hominid evolution gave rise to specific branches of our nervous system that help us care. The sight of suffering and vulnerability triggers activation in an old region of the brain known as the periaqueductal grey. A bundle of nerves in the chest known as the vagus nerve, which slows the stress response, allows us to look at others and to vocalize. Then there’s the miraculous neuropeptide, oxytocin, which floats through the brain and body; when whiffed through a nasal spray in experiments, it makes people empathize, trust, and share money with strangers.
We are wired to care. As we exercise this caregiving branch of the nervous system in acts of generosity, cooperation, and service, recent studies show, reward circuits in the brain are activated, and we find greater joy than when we indulge our narrow self-interest. Acts of care make us more likely to live into our 70s and 80s.
Consider one recent study by an enterprising young psychologist. When asked in surveys, most Americans believe that spending money on personal desires brings greater satisfaction than giving it away. But when participants actually were given the chance to do that, to spend $20 on themselves or give it away, it was the act of generosity that led to greater happiness.
To care is good.
The imagination is an instrument of good
We can care because we have evolved the capacity to rise above the loud demands of the internal voice of self-interest, and imagine the minds, interests, and concerns of others. This empathic flight is enabled by mirror neurons and large portions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It is enabled by our wildly contagious tendencies.
Recent studies of a community in Massachusetts find that all manner of tendencies—dietary habits, anxiety, sadness, hope and happiness, and generosity—spread through neighborhoods as readily as flus and colds. Recent studies find that when we give to a stranger, that stranger goes on to give seven percent more in interactions in which we are no longer present.
We are separated by the boundaries of our skin, we are separate constellations of trillions of cells, but in the reaches of our mind we are connected to one another. Other people’s gains and costs can become our own. And in these acts of empathy, where we see the world through the eyes of others, we come to understand that we all suffer, we all yearn for the happiness of our children. We come to see that we share a common humanity.
In the words of the poet Percey Shelley:
The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.
The heart of reverence
In caring and imagining the lives of others we encounter the fragile, fleeting beauty of life. This is the heart of reverence—our recognition that we are part of something sacred that is larger than any individual self. You are part of a family, a community, an education at Berkeley, a historical movement, this graduation ceremony in this hallowed Greek Theater.
The ancient Greeks believed that reverence—the feeling of awe for things that are greater than the self—is a critical substance of human communities, as important as our capacity for justice.
It is the feeling of reverence and awe that led Charles Darwin, standing in a South American forest, to muse, “It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for so little purpose.” Those feelings of awe spurred Darwin to imagine his theory of evolution by natural selection.
It was John Muir’s feeling of awe at the idea that a black locust tree is from the pea family that led him to wander the United States and eventually find his way to the nearby Sierras. On one of his days there he wrote:
We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams, and rocks, in the waves of the sun—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.
And out of those experiences of awe Muir began to write and inspire others, and form the Sierra Club, and eventually inspire the creation of the state and national park system.
It is this sense of reverence that gives rise to the deep sense of gratitude, and an appreciation of things that are given. When scientists gave resources to people in 15 remote cultures, from the Amazon to Indonesia, they found that they gave on average 40 percent away to complete strangers. Adam Smith, the great economist, pondered why so much cooperation would arise in the England of the Industrial Revolution, when people were presumably driven by pure self interest. His answer: reverence and gratitude are the engines of healthy communities.
To share is good.
For happiness, practice compassion
When we reflect on others’ generosity, recent studies find, we experience 25 percent boosts in happiness and better health profiles, and our children perform better academically.
We all have so much that has been given to us to be grateful for. The chance to learn. To be at Berkeley. The sun on your skin. The Eucaplyptus trees. To enjoy this day. Your parents. Your parents have given so very much to you.
You, our graduates of 2012, are the new generation. You have so many incredible gifts. You are brilliant, imaginative, outspoken, irreverent, free-spirited, and kind.
And you are something more. I hear it in the new questions you ask in the classroom and in your research, and I see it in your actions in the world. You’re using psychological science to humanize the criminal justice system, destigmatize mental illness, create nurturing environments that build stronger connections in the frontal lobes, reduce stress—our biggest killer—in the health care system, make Facebook kinder.
You are Generation We. And I don’t mean the video game console Wii; or “wee” in the British sense of meaning “small”; or “oui” the French word for yes; or “we” like what a two year old says when he has to go to the bathroom.
I mean “we” as in us, we as in this human species, we as in common humanity, we as in all sentient beings.
You will not be fooled by false claims like, “Greed is Good.” Instead I hope you are guided by the wisdom of the ages, now fortified by science: to care is good, to be thankful is good. There is so much good and beauty to revere in this world.
You will have amazing lives. You will become social workers, clinicians, professors, high school teachers, medical doctors, journalists, new social media gurus, inventors, and lawyers. Some will serve cappuccinos and write poetry or make it big in some rock-and-roll band. You will take care of troubled individuals, create more humane and just public policy, use psychological science to combat climate change and tilt the balance toward greater equality, make discoveries in neuroscience, make the new social media kinder, and nurture better schools and neighborhoods. Some of you will just stick out your thumb and hit the open road.
You will fall deeply in love. Have children. Pay bills. Buy homes. You will grapple with the first noble truth of Buddhism: that to live is to suffer, but in suffering we recognize the common substance of our humanity. You will have experiences of reverence and awe that send tingling shivers throughout your body—the incredible beauty of your loved one’s hands, your new baby emerging out of that very narrow birth canal, the rolling laugh of your child, the quiet of night, seeing your parents become grandparents, and those patterns repeating themselves in your fast moving lives. Time will travel so fast.
And some day, perhaps, you will sit in this very Greek Theatre, and watch your own child become a Berkeley grad.
I hope that you will live your life by what makes you feel awe, what brings those goosebumps to your skin, and what brings you closer to the ineffable beauty of others. I hope that you will embrace the concerns and suffering of others, heeding the words of the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
I hope that you will continually delight in the wonders of our species, which led to this science you have studied. I believe you will, for you are Generation We. And as you change the world, this admiring faculty here on stage will feel our own kind of reverence for what you do.
Graduates of 2012, congratulations, and I wish you the best of luck.