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Kindness Is Contagious

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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 hands.

"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 "elevation."

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 virtuous behavior.

"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," Haidt says.

Positive Psychology

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.

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