The Art of Strengths Coaching

E is for Elevation – A Feeling Inspired By Seeing Moral Beauty In Action

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Elevation is the feeling you get when seeing moral beauty in action. Your soul feels uplifted and you get a warm feeling in your chest.

You may experience this feeling after seeing people showing kindness or showing courage in the face of adversity. Seeing humanity at its best, you have a greater belief in people and the future they can shape.

The feeling is akin to that you get when being moved by a piece of music or by beauty. It is similar to having a sense of awe or enjoying peak experiences.

Jonathan Haidt has done considerable research on the theme of elevation. Below are excerpts from a piece he wrote about his journey towards studying this topic.

Previously he had studied what he called social disgust – the feeling people got when seeing moral ugliness. He then moved on to studying acts of moral beauty. You can discover more via the following link.

http://www.dreammanifesto.com/elevation-and-the-revelation-of-our-better-selves.html

Elevation – Someone Moves Up

(One day in 1997) I had my positive psychology awakening. I looked up. I had never thought about what emotion we feel when we see someone move up, acting in a super-human or saintly way.  

But once I began looking up, I began to see a whole new set of emotional responses. I have begun calling this set of responses elevation. I have now done several experiments on elevation, and here is what I have learned. 

Psychologists generally define emotions by their component parts, such as eliciting conditions, physiological changes, facial expressions, and motivations. Elevation can therefore be defined as follows: 

Elevation is elicited by witnessing acts of moral beauty (e.g., compassion, courage, loyalty). 

Elevation is experienced as a physical sensation of warmth, glowing, or openness in the chest, and sometimes as a tingling in the skin, particularly along the back, neck, and head.

Elevation motivates people to move towards higher moral ends, e.g., to help others, or to become a better people themselves.

The fact that we can be so responsive to the good deeds of others, even when we do not benefit directly, is a very important fact about human nature.

One of the pleasures for me of studying elevation is that people sometimes tell me about their own elevation experiences.  

A hallmark of elevation is that, like disgust, it is contagious. It rubs off on others, but in a good way. When an elevation story is told well, it elevates all who hear it.

One of the best such stories was sent to me last December by David Whitford.  

Several years ago, David’s Unitarian church asked its members to write their own spiritual autobiography, that is, an account of how they came to be the spiritual person they are now. 

Tears of Compassion and Celebration

While reflecting on his spiritual experiences David grew puzzled over why he is so often moved to tears during the course of church services. He noticed that there are two kinds of tears.

The first he calls tears of compassion, such as those he shed during a sermon on Mother’s Day on the subject of children who are growing up abandoned or neglected.

These cases feel to him like being pricked in the soul, after which love pours out for those who are suffering.  

But the second kind of tear is very different. He calls them tears of celebration, but he could just as well have called them tears of elevation.  

I will end this article with his words, which give a more eloquent description of elevation than anything I could write: 

“There’s another kind of tear. This one’s less about giving love and more about the joy of receiving love, or maybe just detecting love (whether it’s directed at me or at someone else).

“It’s the kind of tear that flows in response to expressions of courage, or compassion, or kindness by others.”

Some people reported such feelings when seeing Nelson Mandela showing kindness to his former jailers. Some when seeing children who had cancer working to raise money for others suffering from the illness. Some when seeing former enemies joining forces to work together for the good of a country.

Looking at your own life, when have you experienced such feelings of elevation? If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation the past when you experienced a feeling of elevation. 

Describe the specific things that contributed to creating the feeling of elevation.

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People who study elevation often refer back to Aristotle’s view on the human virtues such as kindness, generosity and love. How to translate these qualities into action? Aristotle maintained it was about developing habits. He wrote: 

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

Many students of elevation also refer to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith in 1771. Skipwith asked for advice regarding which books he should read and put in his personal library.

Jefferson advised reading books that gave examples of people behaving in a virtuous way. Here is an extract from what he wrote. You can discover more via the following link.

http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0056

(Everything) is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.

When any original 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.  

On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice.  

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise.

But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.  

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Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

People can be inspired
by feelings of elevation

Seeing examples of moral excellence can inspire others to emulate such behaviour. Many traditional myths, legends and stories also highlight possible ways that people can behave. The parable of The Good Samaritan, for example, reminds people to love thy neighbour as thyself.

Jonathan Haidt refers to this phenomenon in an article written for the website The Happiness Hypothesis. Here are excerpts from the website. You can discover more via the following link.

http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/haidt.spiritual-information.pdf

It is a lovely coincidence that I happen to work at Jefferson’s university – the university of Virginia … and (for) the last few years, I have been studying Jefferson’s emotion, which I call ‘elevation’.

I have asked people to recall times when they have witnessed a good deed and compared what they wrote to times when they got something good for themselves.  

I have shown people video clips about Mother Teresa and about an eleven-year-old boy who founded a shelter for the homeless, and I have compared their responses to those of people who watched video clips of comedians.  

I have found that viewing or thinking about acts of moral beauty causes a set of responses that Jefferson described: feelings in the chest (sometimes described as warm or open feeling) coupled with a motivated to help others and a feeling of being uplifted oneself.  

I believe that elevation is one of the most important emotions underlying human spiritual life and spiritual growth. It is a surprising and very beautiful fact about our species that each of us can be moved to tears by the sight of a stranger helping another stranger.  

It is an even more beautiful fact that these feelings sometimes motivate us to change our own behaviour, values and goals.

Narratives of the lives of Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa and other inspiring figures are full of stories of people who, upon meeting the saintly figure, dropped their former materialistic pursuits and devoted themselves to advancing the mission of the one who elevated them.

If elevation is an emotion that creates disciples and helps moral visions to spread, then elevation has changed the world.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, would you like to experience such feelings? If so, how can you make this happen?

You may wish, for example, to read books such as The Altruistic Personality. Written by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, this chronicles the activities of people who protected Jews during the Holocaust.

Somewhere up to 500,000 non-Jews risked their own lives to rescue the victims of Nazi persecution. They were ‘ordinary’ people, say Pearl and Samuel, they were farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, factory workers, rich and poor, parents and single people, Protestants and Catholic.

Different people helped the Jews in different ways. Some offered them shelter; some helped them escape from prison; some smuggled them out of the country.

The Rescuers committed themselves to helping Jews, knowing that capture would mean death for their families. Why? Many rescuers said simply, “It was the right thing to do.” Individuals also said things like:

I was always filled with love for everyone, for every creature, for things. I am fused into every object. For me everything is alive.

I sensed I had in front of me human beings that were hunted down like wild animals. This aroused a feeling of brotherhood and a desire to help.

We had to help these people in order to save them, not because they were Jews, but because they were persecuted human beings who needed help.

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“What we focus on, we become,” we are told. Learning from people who demonstrate moral excellence can provide inspiration and a feeling elevation.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to, if you wish, experience feelings of elevation in the future.

Describe the specific benefits – both for yourself and other people – of creating these feelings of elevation.

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