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Living Positively

Dr Edward Hoffman
Moral Elation: A Surprising Path to Happiness
By Dr Edward Hoffman

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson--America’s third President and chief author of its Declaration of Independence--helped to create a new specialty in positive psychology? It’s a striking example of how history’s great figures have offered seemingly new insights about the human mind. Back in 1771, Jefferson’s friend Robert Skipwith asked for advice on what books to buy for his personal library--and Jefferson recommended fiction (as well as volumes in history and natural science) because “any act of charity or gratitude…presented either to our sight or imagination {makes us} deeply impressed with its beauty—-and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also.” Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University had been conducting research on moral disgust (the negative emotion we experience in hearing about repulsive acts) when he chanced across Jefferson’s comment. It certainly seemed intriguing, but was it scientifically true?  

A series of experiments conducted by Dr Haidt and international colleagues beginning in the early 2000s revealed the answer is a definite yes. Both subjectively in terms of feelings, and also with regard to objective consequences, moral elevation or moral elation (both terms are currently used) proved to be a real and measurable emotional state—-different from momentary happiness. In case you’re wondering, this emotional state was associated specifically with feeling moved and uplifted, having a warm feeling in the chest, wanting to become a better person, and desiring to help others.  

Intriguingly, experimental research has consistently shown that inspiring movies--whether documentary or fictional--can also evoke moral elation. This finding is eminently consistent with the therapeutic work of mental health professionals. For example, when I recently posted an internet query on the use of film in this context, psychologists, counselors, and personal coaches around the world recounted how particular movies had spurred emotional uplift among their clients. These included epic biographies like Gandhi and Schindler’s List, as well as “smaller” films like The Book Thief and Groundhog Day. Some colleagues stated they regularly assigned specific films to help their clients gain greater optimism about humanity and recognize that people can act with generosity, compassion, and benevolence--not only with selfishness, cynicism, or cruelty.  

  A similar query which I placed on my high-school alumni website evoked many heartfelt replies. One respondent commented that, “After seven years of employment in media sales, I was looking for new challenges. Then I saw Stand and Deliver about the Bolivian-born Los Angeles educator Jaime Escalante…It was the most influential factor in my decision to teach on both college and high-school levels.” Another respondent stated, “I remember seeing 12 Angry Men, a classic 1950s drama about a deadlocked jury in a murder case. It really made me think that one person--—acting against the odds--can make a difference in this world.”

    Among today’s leading psychologists in studying such intriguing phenomena is Dr Ryan Niemic of Xavier University. In his view, cinematic elevation may manifest in several possible ways after we view an inspiring movie character or theme. For example, we may decide to copy the protagonist’s core strengths in order to improve ourselves or aid a loved one. Thus, The Shawshank Redemption induces some people to implement more hope and perseverance in their own lives. Others persons, after watching a movie like The Artist, decide to express a strength or virtue different from what was portrayed-—such as gratitude for life rather than zest. And still others, after seeing a film like Groundhog Day, become motivated to “do good” or improve themselves through a changed outlook. From my professional experience, films often mentioned in this context also include As Good as It Gets, Finding Forrester, and director Frank Capra’s classic It’s A Wonderful Life. The list is long, and that’s surely an encouraging thing.

Is there an actual physical basis to moral elation? Recent scientific research indeed suggests so. In a study led by Dr Sarina Saturn at the University of Oregon, 104 college students watched a couple of videos depicting either heroic, compassionate acts or merely amusing situations. At the same time, researchers measured the participants’ heart rate and medial prefrontal cortex activity as well as their respiratory sinus arrhythmia--an indicator of activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), our calming self-soothing system. Quite unexpectedly for Dr Saturn’s research team, those who watched the elevation-inspiring videos --- especially in the most emotionally intense moments—showed activation in both heart rate and PNS. In striking contrast, the college students who watched the merely amusing videos experienced activation in neither heart-rate nor physiological self-soothing.

Such results signify that witnessing acts of moral goodness is simultaneously energizing and yet physically comforting—-quite a potent combination! As Dr Saturn noted to a reporter, “We’ve found that just showing an inspiring video of people being kind is enough to cause dramatic events [to take place] in the body and to allow you to want to pay it forward and be prosocial in return.”

Guided Activities

Because moral elation spurs good deeds as well personal happiness, it’s beneficial to recall acts of notable kindness, courage, or altruism that you’ve witnessed. When was the last time in daily life that you saw someone behaving benevolently toward another person? In writing, describe the incident and be sure to relate how it made you feel. Did you know the initiator and recipient, or were they strangers to you? Did you feel motivated to pass such kindness onto others? If so, what did you do?

Next describe a film which moved you by a depiction of courage (whether physical or moral), altruism, or steadfast love, such as a parent for his or her child. How did the movie make you feel emotionally and physically? Did you identify more with the initiator of this admirable behavior or with its recipient?  Finally, what movies would you recommend to a teenager needing an uplift about the potential for goodness that exists within human nature, and why?  

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org