"All of us have a built-in responsiveness to good or evil," Haidt says. "When we see moral exemplars—moral saints—it affects us emotionally. And that effect is to elevate us, too. Exposure to goodness pulls all of us up a little bit."

Haidt is quick to point out he didn't "discover" elevation—philosophers and theologians have long noted the effects of contemplating virtue. But he is the first to look at the subject empirically. For his research, Haidt received the $100,000 John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, awarded by the American Psychological Association. The award encourages scientific study of humanity's nobler qualities, such as optimism, courage, compassion, and generosity.

So how can we cultivate more elevation in our lives and pass it on to others? "By seeking out stories of moral beauty and, when you encounter them, noticing any skeptical or cynical reactions you have and challenging them," Haidt suggests. "Notice how people so often go out of their way to help others."

And be a role model yourself. "Recognize that your own actions often have a ripple effect that you don't realize," Haidt says. "Any time you make an effort to do something good, you may benefit not just the person you help but also those who witness your act. We don't feel elevation from thinking about charity," he emphasizes. "We feel it from seeing someone do something charitable."

Change Your Mind (and Your Mood)
From the December 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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