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Kindness Is Contagious

Teach Your Children Well

Warming the Heart continued...

Haidt acknowledges the difficulties in studying elevation. Among these is that the phenomenon does not appear to be accompanied by a distinguishing facial expression -- the kind of trait most often used as a physical marker for other emotional or psychological states.

"Psychologists are struggling to be scientific about subtle phenomena," he says. "We tend to gravitate toward any objective marker, and facial expression is the most expressive marker for emotion."

But Haidt says he believes there is at least one measurable response associated with elevation: namely, stimulation of the vagus nerve, which affects heart beat rate. In forthcoming studies, Haidt says he hopes to induce elevation in subjects, and then measure its effect on the vagus nerve.

Perform Random Acts of Kindness

So how might positive psychology and insights into elevation be applied in real life to parenting and education? Haidt says the principles of elevation have informed at least one school-based education program.

That program, called "Kindness Is Contagious: Catch It," began in a single Kansas City, Mo., school and has since spread to more than 400 public schools in the area, according to Su Ellen Fried, founder of the Stop Violence Coalition, which now sponsors the school-based program.

Among the activities the program encourages is one in which children are asked to fill up two jars with beans. One jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a put-down, insult, or injury; another jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a "put-up" or an act of kindness.

"It gives kids a visual image of what they are doing to each other," Fried tells WebMD. "The purpose is to increase the put-ups and decrease the put-downs."

A second activity is called "Pass It On," in which a teacher provides a general overview of what kindness is, and then waits to observe a spontaneous act of kindness among the classmates. When the teacher witnesses such an act, she or he gives the kind child an object -- say, a red apple -- and tells the child that he or she is now a witness and must pass the apple on to whomever performs a similar act of kindness.

"The feedback we got was amazing," Fried says. "Kids wanted to be observed performing acts of kindness. They were overdosing on kindness."

Interested parents can purchase two volumes of guidebooks describing the program and its activities for $20. Write to the Stop Violence Coalition, 301 East Armour, Suite 440, Kansas City, MO 64111.

Will the program work and truly create an "epidemic" of kindness? Time will tell, but psychologists say that educational programs focusing exclusively on the dangers of certain behavior, without corresponding models of right behavior, are unlikely to succeed.

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