Elevation

What is it?

In comparison to other areas within positive psychology, elevation is a less researched concept. However, a review of the empirical literature suggests interest in it is quickly growing.

Elevation is classified it as a moral emotion characterised by two features. The first is disinterested elicitors, meaning the emotion is a response to an event involving someone other than the self. The second is prosocial action tendencies – the desire to act in response to the event.

Moral emotions differ from other emotions as they are:

“…emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent”

(Haidt, 2003, p. 853).

What causes elevation?

Haidt (2000) states that across cultures, people rank their society on a vertical scale, with moral perfection and evil at opposing ends. Examples of moral depravity elicit feelings of social disgust, while acts which display humanity’s higher nature generate feelings of elevation.

Examples of ‘moral beauty’ or human goodness could include acts of charity, courage, loyalty, generosity or kindness towards others. Actions don’t have to be grand in nature and examples of moral beauty that have previously been recorded in studies have included: removing snow from a stranger’s drive, sharing a meal with someone who has little and giving up a seat on the bus.

Interestingly, acts of moral beauty don’t have to be experienced first-hand; written or audio accounts as well as exposure to videos depicting human goodness are also effective in creating feelings of elevation in people.

As with everything, cultural and personal values will impact perceptions of what counts as an act of ‘human goodness’. What is desirable in one country will not be in another.  While respecting these differences, we should also acknowledge that there are common acts that unite humanity, e.g. helping someone in need crosses potential differences/clashes in culture and values, as it’s often considered core to being a ‘decent’ person.

What can elevation create?

People experiencing elevation report numerous positive affects including:

  • Feeling surprised, uplifted or moved.
  • Respect for the altruistic person who performed the act.
  • An increased connectedness to others.
  •  The tendency to be more open to people and view them in an optimistic way.
  • A desire to love and be with others.
  • An increased interest in acting in a similar, altruistic manner.

Some studies suggest that some people are more open to moral beauty than others due to personality traits associated with transcendence and love (Diessner et al., 2013) or those that are high in the ‘Big Five’ character traits of Extraversion, Openness to Experience and Agreeableness (Landis et al., 2009). In addition to this, people who perceive their moral character as being central to their identity, may be more likely to experience elevation than those who do not (Aquino et al., 2011).

Whether we are one of these people who are predisposed to more experiences of elevation or not, we can all strive to increase our awareness of the ‘good’ acts of others and turn our focus to appreciating their consideration for others. Too often we’re inward looking, and elevation provides a refreshing reminder that we’re also interested in the well-being of others.

Increase your experience of elevation

Looking for opportunities to actively increase your experience of elevation may bring you the personal positive benefits outlined above and have the added potential to inspire you to act in more considerate ways towards others.

Some suggestions on how you could develop your awareness of acts of ‘human goodness’ that may already be happening in your community include:

  • Looking up and around on your commute, from your desk at work, when you’re out and about. Paying attention to your surroundings and actively looking for examples of people doing kind, generous acts for others.
  • Each day for one week, note down an example of an act you personally noticed or were told about. If possible, include detail – what did the person do? How was it received? How did it make you feel? Reflect on these notes at the end of the week.
  • Introduce a ‘community’ board in your workplace or a family board at home that yourself and others can write on to share examples of acts which left you/them feeling uplifted. Making time to stop and read the board each week will open you up to your community/family’s experiences of human goodness too.

Elevation has the unique potential to benefit both ourselves and others. As we become more aware of the good in other people around us, we feel more connected and optimistic. We may even be inspired to show more pro-social behaviour ourselves (e.g. volunteering, helping, sharing) which, in turn, could inspire others…

Thanks for reading!

Further reading

Aquino, K., McFerran, B., & Laven, M. (2011). Moral Identity and the Experience of Moral Elevation in Response to Acts of Uncommon Goodness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 703–718. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022540

Diessner, R., Iyer, R., Smith, M., & Haidt, J. (2013). Who engages with moral beauty? Journal of Moral Education, 42(2), 139–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2013.785941

Haidt, J. (2000). The Positive Emotion of Elevation. Prevention & Treatment, 3, 1–5.

Haidt, J. (2003). The Moral Emotions. In R. Davidson, K. Scherer & H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 852-870). New York: Oxford University Press

Landis, S., Sherman, M., Piedmont, R., Kirkhart, M., Rapp, E., & Bike, D. (2009). The relation between elevation and self-reported prosocial behavior : Incremental validity over the Five-Factor Model of Personality. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 71–84. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760802399208

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