Elevating for Social Change

Editor’s note: This is the first post of a two-part series. Read part two here. Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash.


In the wake of a new world, one where a pandemic has left holes in our hearts and in our understanding of the fabric of society as we know it, it’s a good time to take stock of what is and isn’t working in our world. What can we do to build our communities up? How can we take our fights for social and racial justice to new heights—or just, how do we stay IN the fight with our minds and bodies still intact?

Even though COVID-19 is not fully over, the world is opening up again for many. It’s not the world we left behind pre-COVID. However, in some ways that can be very good news. For instance, we now have an opportunity to capitalize on last year’s social justice momentum. In addition, we can start putting into practice our ideas for new communities and society to exist in greater harmony.

A Feeling of Inspiration

While I am not here to prescribe how we can fix society (yet), I can offer what I know: the subtle power of positive emotions. Therefore, I’m putting the spotlight on moral elevation in this post. Elevation is the warm, tingling sensation we get when we see someone do a virtuous, meaningful, and inspiring act.1 This feeling can come from seeing a video of someone saving a child from an oncoming subway train. Similarly, it can also come from seeing someone stand up for racial justice in a potentially dangerous situation. That feeling of inspiration that comes from seeing people stand up for what is right is known as (moral) elevation.

Benefits of Moral Elevation

This emotional state, friends, is a doozy. While elevation is generally associated with the impressive benefits of positive emotions, this inspiring feeling is also associated with a host of prosocial and altruistic feelings. For instance, participants in various research studies who were primed to feel elevation (whether through a film clip or an inspiring story) were also more likely to want to be a better person2 and to discover the best version of themselves.3 Elevated people feel more love for all of humanity4 and have an increased optimism towards society in general.5 Although these feelings won’t build a new world on their own, they can provide us with the will to keep fighting and trying to create a more beautiful world.

Acknowledging Mixed Emotions

This is a good moment to hop on a quick soapbox. With a lot of the world understandably focused on “toxic positivity” (i.e., maintaining a positive outlook at all times), please know that my suggestion to experience positive emotions—including elevation—does NOT mean you should ignore your negative emotions! Indeed, both of these emotional states are important parts of being human. Thus, we need both! For instance, it’s okay to feel the anger caused by the injustice and sadness of a world that doesn’t fully support the equality of all people. We certainly need to let ourselves feel this—to sit with whatever feelings come up as we acknowledge that things are not alright. However, we also need to feel that things can improve and be inspired by others taking a strong prosocial action.

Elevation is one emotion that reminds us of the good in humanity, and why we should keep picking up board after board and nail after nail until we have created a space in a world we believe in. Who knows? With every board we pick up, maybe someone will see us and eventually be elevated to pick up their own board. Society rarely changes as quickly as we’d like, but it inevitably always starts with taking small steps.

Why Moral Elevation?

While feeling elevated is one place (of many) to start, it also organizes our minds in more harmonious directions. In case you aren’t convinced yet, let me just mention that people who have been primed to feel elevation are also more likely to volunteer at humanitarian charity organizations,6 feel more favorable about environmentally friendly products,7 and donate to charities that focused on BIPOC.8 In fact, elevation has made people feel less prejudice towards others of different sexual orientations,9 led to depressed participants being more willing to reach out for help,10 and (trigger warning) resulted in increased post-traumatic growth for students, faculty, and staff at a college that had experienced a mass shooting within the past four to eight months.11

So while elevation can help us feel more connected to nature12 and experience more meaning13 and satisfaction with life,14 it is also an emotion that inspires us to do better, help others, and create a world that we are proud to live in.

Wanna give it a go? Tune in to my next post as I lay out two great activities for getting into your elevation groove.


References

1. Thomson, A. L., & Siegel, J. T. (2017). Elevation: A review of scholarship on a moral and other-praising emotion. The Journal of Positive Psychology12(6), 628-638.

2. 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 psychology100(4), 703.

3. Huta, V., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Pursuing pleasure or virtue: The differential and overlapping well-being benefits of hedonic and eudaimonic motives. Journal of happiness studies11(6), 735-762.

4. Diessner, R., Iyer, R., Smith, M. M., & Haidt, J. (2013). Who engages with moral beauty?. Journal of Moral Education42(2), 139-163.

5. 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 psychology100(4), 703.

6. Haidt, J. (2000). The Positive emotion of elevation.

7. Romani, S., Grappi, S., & Bagozzi, R. P. (2016). Corporate socially responsible initiatives and their effects on consumption of green products. Journal of Business Ethics135(2), 253-264.

8. Freeman, D., Aquino, K., & McFerran, B. (2009). Overcoming beneficiary race as an impediment to charitable donations: Social dominance orientation, the experience of moral elevation, and donation behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35(1), 72-84.

9. Lai, C. K., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2014). Moral elevation reduces prejudice against gay men. Cognition & emotion28(5), 781-794.

10. Siegel, J. T., & Thomson, A. L. (2017). Positive emotion infusions of elevation and gratitude: Increasing help-seeking intentions among people with heightened levels of depressive symptomatology. The Journal of Positive Psychology12(6), 509-524.

11. Tingey, J. L., McGuire, A. P., Stebbins, O. L., & Erickson, T. M. (2019). Moral elevation and compassionate goals predict posttraumatic growth in the context of a college shooting. The Journal of Positive Psychology14(3), 261-270.

12. Moreton, S. G., Arena, A., Hornsey, M. J., Crimston, C. R., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2019). Elevating nature: Moral elevation increases feelings of connectedness to nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology65, 101332.

13. Van Cappellen, P., Saroglou, V., Iweins, C., Piovesana, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Self-transcendent positive emotions increase spirituality through basic world assumptions. Cognition & emotion27(8), 1378-1394.

14. Diessner, R., Solom, R. D., Frost, N. K., Parsons, L., & Davidson, J. (2008). Engagement with beauty: Appreciating natural, artistic, and moral beauty. The Journal of psychology142(3), 303-332.

About the Author

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Thrive Center. As a Positive Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Mangan is interested in how we, as individuals and as a society, can lead happier and more fulfilling lives. As a scholar more broadly, her research focuses on positive psychology interventions, well-being, and emerging adulthood. She also has a strong background in evaluation, statistics, and community program development.

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