compassionate - Dacher Keltner

May 11, 2023

Episode #057: The Compassionate Instinct & Bringing Wonder Back to Work with Dacher Keltner

In today’s episode, Tobi features Dacher Keltner and discusses the compassionate instinct, bringing wonder and awe back into our lives, and becoming more resilient.

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. He is a renowned expert in the science of human emotion, studying compassion and awe, how we express emotion, and how emotions guide our moral identities and search for meaning. His research interests also span the issues of power. He has written a new book on awe and has a podcast called “Science of Happiness” that offers practices for how to feel stronger, even when doing hard work like volunteering. To learn more about his research, one can visit his website at or the Greater Good Science Center website at

Compassionate – What is awe?

Awe is a feeling that we have when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand. It is a feeling that we experience in response to nature, music, other people’s sacrifice and goodness, art, big ideas, spirituality, life, and death. Awe makes us feel smaller, less stressed, and connected to the community. It also makes us feel very altruistic and want to be good to people. When we feel awe, we feel tears, get the chills, and have activation in the vagus nerve, which slows down our heart and deepens our breathing. In the brain, during awe, we feel selfless or ego death, and the mean egotism vanishes.

Awe can transform our lives in profound ways. A little moment of awe out in nature or listening to music makes us feel less lonely and more connected to the community. It helps our immune system, reduces inflammation, and activates the vagus nerve, which helps our heart. Awe also makes us more creative and gives us a clearer sense of our purpose in the context we’re in. Finding a little bit of awe in our work, even when doing hard work like volunteering, can help us overcome the challenges of volunteerism. We can find awe in our work by taking awe walks, telling stories about awe, and sharing stories of an awe-inspiring moment in our volunteerism with our colleagues.

Compassionate – Compassionate Instinct

The compassionate instinct has helped us evolve as a species in several ways. Firstly, it helps us evolutionarily by taking care of vulnerable beings, particularly vulnerable offspring. This is evident in the fact that babies and young children will help an adult starting at 18 months, and we share 40% of our resources with strangers. Secondly, compassion helps the individual because it is inherently empowering to the body. There are linkages between compassion, volunteerism, and life expectancy, which can be explained through neurophysiological pathways. Thirdly, compassion helps social networks. The more people practice compassion, the more it spreads, leading to tight cooperative social networks.

In today’s world, altruism and compassionate acts are more important than ever because we are facing unprecedented crises such as the climate crisis, refugees, homelessness, and poverty. The younger generation has lost faith in free markets, capitalism, and the government, and they want to take things into their own hands by volunteering and making a difference in their communities. The compassionate instinct is essential for our survival as a species, and it helps us to thrive by planning and caring for one another.

Compassionate – Show Highlights

01:42.80 Tobi introduced Dr. Dacher Keltner and his works

04:13.30 What sparked Dacher’s interest in happiness, compassion and awe

10:29.00 Why do you think overall in today’s world in particular, altruism and compassionate acts are so important?

12:10.50 How has the compassion compassionate instinct helped us evolve as a species?

15:25.40 How can we set it up so that people are willing to give more of themselves

20:26.40 What are the characterstics behind awe and what does it do for our brains?

25:58.10 How can awe transform your life?

34:59.20 Preventing the sense of burnout with compassion

39:16.80 What is Dacher most excited for in the year ahead

Compassionate – Quotes from the Episode

“Without emotions, we would be rudderless in some way and not know which way to orient our best behavior.”

“Volunteerism actually is was one of the important literatures that’s relevant to compassion.”

“We humans love service. We find service deeply rewarding. It activates dopamine release in the brain. It’s just, it’s essential. And we need to speak to that impulse in our people.”

“So the more people practice compassion, the more it spreads.”

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