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4 February 2023

Dacher Keltner Q&A: “I’m not wired for happiness”

The Berkeley psychologist on growing up in Laurel Canyon in the Sixties and why you should do your homework.

By New Statesman

Dacher Keltner was born in Mexico in 1962 and is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert on the function of emotions in relationships, he was a consultant for the Pixar film Inside Out.

What’s your earliest memory?

Camping by the Pacific Ocean in Central California with my dad and brother, Rolf. We faded into the foggy night in sleeping bags in the sand dunes and drifted into the soggy, soft darkness.

Who are your heroes?

One was George Harrison. Growing up in the late 1960s in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, we used to debate the best Beatle on the morning school bus.

My heroes now are Louis Scott, a prisoner and friend in Folsom Prison, who does restorative justice work inside and teaches me about courage. Dr Yuria Celidwen is creating better lives for indigenous peoples, and teaches me about truth. Patrick Gonzalez is creating science-based, optimistic solutions for climate crisis challenges, and teaches me about hope.

[See also: Francesca Stavrakopoulou Q&A: “In my field, people often talk about doom”]

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What book last changed your thinking?

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow reminded me, yet again, about the deep history of white supremacy in the United States and its newest chapter, the move of millions of people of colour into prisons.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would love to have lived in an era a million or so years ago when our various hominid predecessors were vying with each other to survive, thrive, reproduce and emerge into the hominid we are today.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Mahatma Gandhi.

What TV show could you not live without?

None, really. But the show that left me most awestruck was The Wire.

Who would paint your portrait?

My dad, Richard Keltner, is an artist, and painted my portrait many times in my childhood. But if he says no, I would love my portrait to be painted by Alexa Meade.

What’s your theme tune?

For the baseline state of my consciousness, the track “1/1” from Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno. For my sense of life and what I’m doing it’s Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and “The Passenger”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Do your homework,” from my mother… I’ve followed it with force.

What’s currently bugging you?

Privilege in the globalised world, and the myopias, myths, ideologies and inequalities that grow out of this social construction. 

What single thing would make your life better?

To be done with fossil fuels.

When were you happiest?

Although I teach happiness to thousands, I’m not wired for happiness. The poignant moments of happiness, though, are many: wrestling with my daughters when they were young; hiking into the High Sierras; grooving to Sona Jobarteh and Ali Farka Touré; doing yoga; observing the moral beauty of fellow humans.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

In my twenties I would have said a screenwriter. Now, a GP.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, life will destroy us. But that is the cycle of life, essential to the evolution of the natural world, our minds and the evolution of culture. Life is always changing, ending, composting.

“Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder” by Dacher Keltner is published by Allen Lane

[See also: Karen Bakker Q&A: “I am insatiably curious about Earth’s long-term future”]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak