Jen Headlines

In addition to the Golden Rule, Confucius described the concept of jen. According to Wikipedia, jen is the "the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when behaving rightly, especially toward others." It's related to kind-heartedness, generosity and benevolence, and the higher our jen, the happier we'll be.

In his recent book Born to be Good, author Dacher Keltner describes a "jen ratio" in which positive messages/observations are in the numerator, while negative ones are in the denominator. For instance, imagine we're at a park and witness the following:

  • A brother shares his ice-cream with his sister (+)
  • A mother hugs her child (+)
  • Two teenagers tease another (-)
  • A man hits his dog with a newspaper and yells, "No!" (-)
  • A roller-blader falls, and a stranger helps her up (+)

Here, the ratio of positive:negative observations is 3:2, so our jen ratio is 1.5. The lower the ratio, the worse we feel. The higher, the better, and the more attuned we are to the better angels of our nature.

Of course, these examples are hypothetical, so let's look at something real. If aliens visited this morning's CNN homepage, what would they conclude about the state of human jen? (Click image to enlarge.)

In the Mathalicious lesson Jen Playlist, students explore this jen ratio in more depth. They begin Act Two by watching a mashup of news clips & TV shows which are predominantly negative, including the 1999 "breaking news" about Columbine, and clips from the X-Factor in which Simon Cowell insults everyone on stage. Told that many consider a good jen ratio to be 5:1, students calculate the number of positive messages they'd need to make up for the negativity, and then watch a series of positive videos in attempt to get the jen ratio back on track. The lesson ends on a high note, and hopefully students will carry that positive energy with them for the rest of the day, and even share it with others.

What was so interesting to me when writing the lesson, though, was how much easier it was to find negative examples than positive ones. Newspaper headlines. Music videos. I considered including Ice-T's It Was a Good Day until I remembered why it was such a good day in the first place ("I didn't even have to use my AK").

I was excited, then, to read Nicholas Kristoff's editorial in this morning's New York Times. His article, Are We Getting Nicer?begins,

It's pretty easy to conclude that the world is spinning down the toilet. So let me be contrary and offer a reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving. Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries. War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer.

I appreciate Kristoff's sentiment, and would love to agree that humans are "getting nicer." But notice how he defines "progress." It's not that we're necessarily becoming more peaceful and more tolerant, but simply less violent and less racist. We no longer expect women to stay at home with the kids, but we're not exactly rallying for equal pay, either.

Mathematically, the absence of negative is not the same as positive. It's one thing to refrain from kicking the roller-blader when she's down, but quite another to help her up. And so I'm left to wonder: is it that we humans are getting nicer, or simply less mean?

Ultimately, there's no way to know. Newspapers, political debates: they all feed off of some kind of division, and using them as a barometer for humanity's jen ratio sets us up for disappointment at worst, ambivalence at best. Ultimately, I suppose it's an act of faith of sorts: do you believe that humans are inherently negative, or do you believe that we're positive? Put another way, do you agree with Dacher Keltner that we're "Born to Be Good?"

I do.

Since writing the Jen Playlist lesson, I've found myself passing over the negative headlines and focusing more on the positive ones. It's not conscious. It's not that I'm intentionally trying to increase my jen ratio as part of some mathematical experiment, but simply that the positive messages feel more authentic. They resonate more deeply. The negative messages don't feel false, but they don't feel true, either.

Fortunately, there are examples out there that do feel true. Examples that vibrate with such pure energy that I can't help but be moved, that I can't help but feel more optimistic. That I can't help but become...nicer.

Here's one. It's great and I love it. I hope you enjoy it. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy jen ratio'ing.


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