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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.

In part, this movement is a reaction to a long tradition within the psychological sciences of concentrating on what's wrong with an individual rather than what's right. That tradition has contributed to a tendency to attribute all human behavior to dark or dishonest motives, and given an excessive focus on mental disease and illness, at the expense of attention to mental health and happiness, Haidt and others say.

"Funding [for research] has been almost entirely for disease prevention," Haidt says. "There's lots of money for mental illness, but not for mental health. Positive psychology doesn't say that's wrong, just unbalanced. Even a little bit of research [on mental health] would have huge payoffs."

Psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan, agrees.

"Psychologists know a lot about stress and trauma," he says. "Why don't we know as much about what makes life worth living?"

Warming the Heart

Haidt's interest in the elevating effects of witnessing good deeds grew out of earlier research on something quite different: the phenomenon of disgust.

That work led him to define disgust as a reaction to seeing other people move downward on what he calls a "scale of cognitions." And the thought occurred to him: What happens when you witness people moving up on that scale, performing noble and generous acts?

"I had never read anything about this in any psychology article, so I decided to study it for myself," Haidt says.

In a book chapter called "Flourishing: The Positive Person and the Good Life" -- to be published later this year by the American Psychological Association -- Haidt outlines a scientific approach to understanding elevation, and some preliminary efforts to describe and measure it.

In that chapter, Haidt describes a simple study in which he asked college students to recall and write about times when they saw a "manifestation of humanity's higher or better nature." As a comparison, students were also asked to think of something that produced happiness -- specifically, to recall a time when they were "making good progress toward a goal" -- but did not produce elevation.

In a second study, elevation was induced in subjects by showing them 10-minute video clips: one about the life of Mother Teresa; one comedy video; and one emotionally neutral but interesting documentary.

In both studies, Haidt says, participants reported different patterns of physical feelings and motivations during the elevated thoughts. "Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests, especially warm, pleasant, or tingling feelings, and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, to become better people themselves, and to affiliate with others," Haidt writes in the forthcoming book.

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