When did you last feel elevated?

Elevation is the emotion elicited when you see someone do something morally beautiful, such as helping someone in need. Try and think about the last time you experienced this. Perhaps it was seeing a video about a hard-working caregiver going above and beyond the call of duty during the Covid-19 crisis, or the work of rescuers during a natural disaster or on a smaller level someone going out of their way to help an elderly neighbour clear snow from their path?

How did you feel? What impact did it have on you? I hope to review what science tells us about this emotion and why it could be important to cultivate it.

A new emotion

Elevation or moral elevation, as it is sometimes known, was first described in the scientific literature as a distinct emotion as recently as 2000 by Jonathan Haidt. However, I’m sure we all recognise it has been around for much longer than that. Haidt (2000) characterised elevation as the emotion felt on witnessing the good and admirable deeds of others. This is experienced as a warmth in the chest accompanied by feeling uplifted and inspired, a sense of optimism about humanity and a motivation to behave more altruistically.

He argues that this is different from awe as it does not involve a sense of vastness and power and separate from inspiration in that it is always associated with a moral outcome rather than just excellence of achievement. Haidt (2000) suggests that elevation is the opposite of disgust, but like disgust has important functions in regulating our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

What does science tell us about elevation?

A recent review of the literature on elevation (Thomson & Siegel 2017), looks at the research evidence. They suggest experiencing elevation:

●      Is associated with physiological responses such as increased heart rate, the release of oxytocin and simultaneous activation of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

●      Promotes feelings of connection with, and optimism about, humanity.

●      Increases desire to be a better person and to pursue eudaimonic motives.

●      Encourages a sense of transcendence and spirituality, diminishing the value of material goals.

●      Increases openness in common with other positive emotions, as described in Fredrickson’s (1998) Broaden and Build theory.

●      Increases actual helping behaviour at an individual level.

●      Can promote more inclusive attitudes at a group level.

●      Can have a positive impact even in those who are depressed.

So, elevation gives you an injection of the feel-good cuddle hormone, helps you be more open, feel connected to others and hopeful about humanity, care less about stuff and more about meaning, reduces bias (racism, homophobia) and makes you more likely to help people.

OK I have overstated the evidence a little here, but this seems like an emotion that now, more than ever, we need to cultivate. As Thomson & Siegel (2017) suggest, there is a lot more research that needs to be done and studies need to be replicated and carried out across more diverse groups (although elevation does appear to be a cross-cultural phenomenon).

Dialectics and elevation

A particular gap in the research that I find interesting is the suggestion that elevation is not a purely positive emotion. One study reported by Thomson & Siegel (2017) found an increased experience of sadness accompanied the other emotions. This fits with some of my personal experiences of elevation. In extreme cases, moral acts result in the death of the person showing the helping behaviour. Think of teachers protecting children in school shootings, the valiant firefighters of New York City on 9/11 and the emotions which always come to me on Remembrance Sunday when I think of those (including my uncle) who gave their lives in conflict so that we might live in freedom.

I think elevation is a dialectic emotion and in many ways is indicative of what I believe Second Wave and indeed Third Wave Positive Psychology to be about. Honouring, striving for and promoting the best of what humanity can be, whilst acknowledging and building on the reality of pain and sacrifice in the pursuit of a better world. I am watching with interest the developing literature on elevation and what more the research can tell us about this complex and important emotion and how it might be harnessed in Positive Psychology Interventions to  have a role in healing some of humanity’s current problems.

A challenge to the media

We know that the media like bad news stories because they sell newspapers (clicks, advertising revenue or whatever the 21st Century equivalent is!). Our evolutionary pre-programmed negativity bias means we give more attention to negative than positive things as this helped us survive in cases of immediate physical threat. However, this natural hangover in the way our brain responds does not always serve us well in our complex modern world where threat is less immediate and physical but more social and existential.

The media sometimes does publish good news stories which promote elevation such as, in the UK, the 100th birthday walk of Captain Tom Moore, who raised over £30 million for the NHS. I suggest they have a responsibility to do more of this. It may not be what we think we want or what sells, but it is perhaps what humanity needs particularly during the dark days of the global pandemic. If we have hope in humanity and feel connected to others through elevation we can each take the small behavioural steps needed to show kindness and inspire others in a virtuous circle moving us towards a better world.

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What Good are Positive Emotions? Review of General Psychology 2(3), 300-319.

Haidt, J. (2000). The positive emotion of elevation. Prevention & Treatment, 3, 1-5.

Thomson, A.L. & Siegel, J.T.  (2017) Elevation: A review of scholarship on a moral and other-praising emotion, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 6, 628-638, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1269184

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