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How Moral Elevation Creates Ripples

"The true grandeur of humanity is in moral elevation." ~ Charles Sumner

We had just sat down for our lunch business meeting. Our whole team was gathered around the table, ready to discuss our strategy for our Science of Happiness project. Team members had flown in from around the world for this. We had just outlined our meeting agenda when one of our team members excused himself from the table for a quick phone call. He said it would take no more than 2 minutes and he’d be right back. We carried on with the meeting, but after nearly a half hour had passed, I began to wonder what had happened. Almost as if in answer to my question, he returned to the table with a concerned look on his face.

“I’m sorry to interrupt this meeting, but this is important. Catherine, would you be willing to come outside for a moment?” Surprised, I stood up. He turned to the group and added, “we won’t be too long.”

Confused and curious, I went outside. There in front of the restaurant was a woman and her baby. The child couldn’t have been much older than 6 months. My friend explained that they were homeless and had been asking for money on the street where he saw them. He had brought them to the table at the front patio of the restaurant, gotten the mother some water, and listened to her life's story. He explained that she’d just arrived from Malaysia a few weeks ago, that she’d left her abusive husband to try to save her child’s life, had no money, no support except for one acquaintance whom she was staying with for a few weeks, and was struggling to find her way.

Because my friend wasn’t from the area, he asked if I could let her know of some local resources for women in need. He then said he would leave us to have some time together, woman to woman.

The moment he was out of sight, she burst into tears. Startled and concerned, I tried comforting her. Through her sobs she said, no, no... these are happy tears! Trembling slightly, she unfolded her clenched hand and held it up. In it was a one hundred dollar bill. She held it to her heart, closed her eyes, and quietly said, "I've never experienced such kindness in my life. Your friend is an angel."

My heart swelled. "I know," I replied. "He is."

I was deeply moved by my friend’s kindness, generosity, and altruistic care. I thought of how many homeless people I’d passed and hadn’t taken the time to learn their life story or help in the way he had just done. Even though we were in the middle of an important business meeting, this woman and her young child had taken priority. She was in need. Our meeting could wait. Tears welled in my eyes.

I sat with her a while, wrote out a list of local resources, gave her my phone number if she ever needed anything, and finally, since she persisted, I returned to the meeting, my heart glowing.

For a long time after, I could not get this moment out of my head. Every time I would recall her big brown eyes filled with grateful tears, I would feel compelled to be a kinder, better, and more giving person. I would ask myself how I could be more like my friend, how I could step up in bigger and better ways in the world. How could I be a light of kindness like he was for this woman? How could I pay this forward?

The feeling I felt in that moment is what Jonathan Haidt calls ‘moral elevation.’ It is the feeling we feel when witnessing virtuous acts, feats of moral beauty, or great acts of kindness and altruism. It differs slightly from love, admiration, gratitude, awe, and reverence, but is in the same family. Moral elevation not only produces a warm tingling feeling in the heart, sometimes causing tears or a feeling of getting choked up, but it also motivates people to do more good deeds, thus creating ripples of kindness!

Elevation often motivates people socially: to love, to be with, and to help others. It often fosters a sense of love, admiration and a desire to be closer to the person that did the good deed. It also motivates us to want to be a better person and take similar actions ourselves. Not only does elevation motivate us to do acts of kindness, but it has been found to even be able to change our views on humanity altogether, giving us a more optimistic, inspired, and grateful perspective.

Sometimes one single experience of elevation can have life-altering impacts. In Jonathan Haidt’s research, one of his participants said that a single act of kindness, a friend coming to stay with him while his father was dying, was one of the most significant moments of his life. Seven years later it still influences him, and even prompted him to become a doctor, so he, too, could give back (source).


“Powerful moments of elevation seem to push a mental reset button, erasing negative feelings and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism.”


Jonathan Haidt is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis and professor at NYU Stern School of Business, focusing on emotions and morality. He is also one of the top researchers of moral elevation. He actually got curious about it after spending eight years studying what he believes to be its opposite: disgust.

In an article he wrote titled, Wired to Inspire, he said, "It makes good evolutionary sense that human beings should have an emotion that makes us feel repulsion toward rotten food, excrement, dead bodies, and other physical objects that are full of danger­ous bacteria and parasites.” But this emotion has also evolved to pertain to social offenses. From Haidt's research, he found that when people are asked what they find disgusting, they often mention things such as cruelty, betrayal, racism, hypocrisy, and treating others in inhumane ways. Haidt’s theory is that disgust helps motivate people to distance themselves from physical threats and also help distance us from perceived social threats as well. (source) Dacher Keltner, another prominent positive psychology researcher, says, "disgust is probably the most powerful emotion that separates your group from other groups" (source).

If disgust is the feeling we experience in response to perceived atrocious deeds, moral elevation is what we experience when witnessing morally good, beautiful deeds. Whereas disgust tends to motivate people to pull away, close off, and separate themselves, elevation tends to motivate people to merge, open up, and help others (source). Disgust often generates a sense of being dragged down and feeling cynical about humanity, whereas elevation often leaves people feeling uplifted and hopeful about humanity. Finally, disgust is often felt as nausea in the gut, whereas elevation is experienced as warmth in the heart area (source).

In a time when politics feel more polarized than ever and so much of our language about the "other" connotes terms of disgust, contemplating the opposite feeling, moral elevation, is an important task for these times. It might just be a good part of the antidote.


"If frequent bad deeds trigger social disgust, cynicism, and hostility toward one’s peers, then frequent good deeds may have a type of social undoing effect, raising the level of compassion, love, and harmony in an entire society."

~ Jonathan Haidt


Some of you might be wondering if 'heartwarming' is just a metaphor that people across cultures around the world use to describe feeling moral elevation. It turns out that it might not be solely a metaphor after all. There is some fascinating research being done around elevation being linked to increased levels of oxytocin (which helps foster bonding and prosocial behavior), and vagus nerve stimulation, which interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart. You can learn more in Haidt's talk, Emotions that Praise Others and Change the Self: Moral Elevation, Admiration, and Awe. Stay tuned for more writings on the vagus nerve coming up in the Wonder Wednesday series.

One of the many things I love about moral elevation is that it creates ripples. As Jonathan Haidt explains, "a hallmark of elevation is that, like disgust, it is contagious. When an elevation story is told well, it elevates those who hear it. Powerful moments of elevation, whether experienced first or second hand, sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset' button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration" (source). What a great way to create ripples of peace in the world!

So how can you increase your daily dose of moral elevation? What brings you these heart-warming feelings? When do you most feel touched by humanity's greatness, courage, and capacity for kindness? Do you have a favorite Youtube Channel, news source, or friend that you can count on for good inspiring news? How can you spread more stories that inspire? In a world with a great deal of disgust, it's time we focus on cultivating its opposite. And not only that, how can you do more acts of kindness, however big or small, and help elicit moral elevation in others? Just think of the ripples that you will create!

What was an act of kindness or moral excellence that inspired you? Feel free to share in the comments below.


"Every thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any ... act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also."

~ Thomas Jefferson



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