Cynthia M. Allen

Multiplying goodness in our everyday lives

Each week I read the Star-Telegram’s Cheers & Jeers section — a feature on the opinion pages that allows readers to submit a short letter either lauding or scolding a subject of their choosing.

I’m always surprised by the number of people who submit “cheers” thanking a random stranger for surreptitiously paying their bill at a local restaurant, stopping along the side of the road to assist a motorist in distress or returning a lost wallet without removing a dime.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be. Goodness is abundant, even in our broken world.

Most gratifying, however, is that the majority of these writers explain how the act of kindness they received will be visited upon another, not merely as a display of gratitude, but also because they feel inspired to multiply the good.

Some people might not see anything remarkable in this, particularly if they subscribe to the golden rule, which teaches that doing unto others as you would have done to you is a moral obligation.

But there’s more at work here than a rational sense of principled social justice.

It’s what Jonathan Haidt — a psychologist who has devoted his career to studying how and why humans evolved to be moral creatures — would call “built-in emotional responsiveness to moral beauty.”

Haidt coined the term moral elevation, a concept that Arthur Brooks, author and president of the American Enterprise Institute recently discussed on the pages of The New York Times.

As Brooks described it, moral elevation is “an emotional state that leads us to act virtuously when exposed to the virtue of others.”

It’s why when someone in line at Starbucks pays for your coffee, you feel an overwhelming desire to commit a similar random act of kindness — perhaps even more than one.

“The usual impulse of experimental psychologists is to strive for parsimony, to explain away any apparently virtuous aspect of human nature as a covert manifestation of selfishness, libido, or ‘mood management,’ ” wrote Haidt in a 2001 paper. But the explanation is perhaps less cynical — that humans have developed a mechanism to “turn off the I switch and turn on the We,” perhaps as a means of transcending our lesser, more animalistic natures.

However banal it might sound, moral elevation is more than just a passing fancy or a notion that seeing something good makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Psychologists and researchers like Haidt have actually started to study the measurable mental and emotional — and ultimately social — effects of moral behavior on those who witness others commit acts of altruism, compassion or forgiveness.

Brooks references a 2010 study in which a set of subjects who watched an uplifting video clip of people expressing gratitude to mentors “reported feeling more optimism about humanity and more desire to help others” than the subjects who watched video clips that were simply entertaining or informative. Those subjects were also immediately more willing to assist the researchers in their study than the members of the other tested groups.

Translating such amorphous and presumably fleeting feelings of virtue into action is hard to measure. But there’s a developing body of research that suggests that moral elevation has not only short-term effects on individual emotions, but a longer-lasting influence on behavior.

Another 2010 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that college students who participated in a service trip felt the effects of the moral elevation weeks and months after the trip concluded. Further, they were more likely to engage or volunteer again in the specific domain that elicited the feelings of elevation.

The obvious corollary to moral elevation is that exposure to immoral or unkind acts will evoke equally powerful responses that motivate anger, hate or selfishness. We see this all too often — in the halls of our state and national capitol buildings; on the streets of Ferguson, Mo.; perhaps even in our own homes.

But as Brooks suggests, we need not be “passive beneficiaries.” We can “actively pursue [moral elevation] as well by rejecting bad influences and seeking good ones,” by surrounding ourselves with people who uplift us and by limiting our exposure to acts that do not inspire our better angels.