Kindness Is Contagious
Teach Your Children Well
July 16, 2001 -- Like many others around the world,
psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, recalls the first time he heard South African
civil rights leader Nelson Mandela speak after his release from prison. Jailed
since the early 1960s, Mandela emerged in 1990 urging reconciliation and
cooperation in building a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa.
"Here was a man who had been imprisoned his whole
life," says Haidt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of
Virginia, in Charlottesville. "If anyone had a right to be angry, it was
Mandela. Yet it was he who said that we all must work together."
Haidt recalls a sensation upon hearing Mandela's words,
something subtle but undeniably real -- something similar, perhaps, to what you
felt the last time you witnessed any act of remarkable generosity or largeness
of spirit: a momentary pause, a flutter in the chest, a tingling in the
"It gave me chills," Haidt recalls. "Just
remembering it brings the sensation back."
That "sensation," Haidt believes, is neither an
inconsequential response limited to one transitory moment of awe, nor a vague
and indecipherable "feeling." Rather, the effect that comes from
witnessing acts of charity or courage may be a profoundly important universal
phenomenon worthy of scientific research, he says.
Haidt is a pioneer in studying the effects that good deeds and
acts of valor have on those who witness them -- an effect he has termed
While Haidt's work is still largely theoretical, he says
parents can apply the principles of elevation in everyday interactions with
children. For instance, he cites William Bennett's The Book of Virtues
-- which describes models of virtuous behavior from history and literature --
as a potent source of what he calls "moral exemplars" for kind and
"No one thing is going to make much of a difference, but
talking about virtues and vices when they arrive in daily life, plus modeling
virtuous behavior yourself, can help to create a sense of a moral world,"
The study of elevation by Haidt is part of a larger movement
termed "positive psychology." It is a growing area of scientific
inquiry focusing on aspects of human experience once considered off-limits to
scientists: forgiveness, spirituality, gratitude, optimism, humor.