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The Highs of Elevation

Why does witnessing a good person doing a good thing give us chills?

A good story is often an uplifting one.

Think of Sidney Carton exchanging places with Charles Darnay at the end of The Tale of Two Cities, and so he goes to the guillotine in Darnay's stead. Darnay will thus live to spend his life with Lucy Manette who Carton also loved.

Carton has done a far, far better thing than he has ever done.

Everyone knows the rush of emotion that witnessing such actions taken by others can bring.

As the late film critic, Roger Ebert, put it when explaining what often causes this feeling, "Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing."

What I find is that the lasting effects of uplifting stories like this is that I want to be a better me. Even after the chills are over (because these uplifting action also produce this particular effect) I commit myself to moral self-improvement. Our reactions to the actions of Aticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is another example familiar to most people.

There really does seem to be something special about acts of extraordinary moral virtue that tug at us in powerful ways.

What is this emotion and what should we call it?

"Elevation" is one term that has taken hold in recent thinking in psychology, and, indeed, psychologists claim that one evolutionary function of this emotion is to inspire us to act in prosocial ways toward others. There is evidence for such claims too.

Elevation may be a very important emotion to be able to feel. After all, another response to something extraordinary in another person can be envy, with all its downsides. Envy is unlikely, however, when the extraordinary aspect of another person is a moral virtue (such as acting in a just way, bravery and self-sacrifice, and caring for others).

Isn't is interesting that elevation can also so often give us chills or a tingling feeling in the chest? This noticeable, physiological response is important. In fact, this physical reaction is what can tell us most surely that we have been moved. This reaction, and the prosocial inclinations it seems to inspire, has been linked with a specific hormone, oxytocin, emitted from Vagus nerve.

Isn't also interesting that there is no evidence that we feel chills when we feel envy. It may be that this sort of physiological response nips envy in the bud.

Want an oxytocin high? See the classic Western movie Shane. It has it all: acts of justice, bravery and self-sacrifice, and caring for others -- and the uprooting of a huge, ornery stump.

To me, it's just about a perfect story.

Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The "other-praising" emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2), 105-127.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 315-320.

Schurtz, D.R., Blincoe, S., Smith, R.H., Powell, C.A.J., Combs, D.J.Y., & Kim, S.H. (2012). Exploring the social aspects of goosebumps and their role in awe and envy. Motivation & Emotion, 36, 205-217.