July 16, 2001 -- Like many others around the world, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, recalls the first time he heard South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela speak after his release from prison. Jailed since the early 1960s, Mandela emerged in 1990 urging reconciliation and cooperation in building a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa.
"Here was a man who had been imprisoned his whole life," says Haidt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "If anyone had a right to be angry, it was Mandela. Yet it was he who said that we all must work together."
Haidt recalls a sensation upon hearing Mandela's words, something subtle but undeniably real -- something similar, perhaps, to what you felt the last time you witnessed any act of remarkable generosity or largeness of spirit: a momentary pause, a flutter in the chest, a tingling in the hands.
"It gave me chills," Haidt recalls. "Just remembering it brings the sensation back."
That "sensation," Haidt believes, is neither an inconsequential response limited to one transitory moment of awe, nor a vague and indecipherable "feeling." Rather, the effect that comes from witnessing acts of charity or courage may be a profoundly important universal phenomenon worthy of scientific research, he says.
Haidt is a pioneer in studying the effects that good deeds and acts of valor have on those who witness them -- an effect he has termed "elevation."
While Haidt's work is still largely theoretical, he says parents can apply the principles of elevation in everyday interactions with children. For instance, he cites William Bennett's The Book of Virtues -- which describes models of virtuous behavior from history and literature -- as a potent source of what he calls "moral exemplars" for kind and virtuous behavior.
"No one thing is going to make much of a difference, but talking about virtues and vices when they arrive in daily life, plus modeling virtuous behavior yourself, can help to create a sense of a moral world," Haidt says.
Bill Fenwick, founding partner of the great Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West, has had a lifelong practice of doing at least 10 kind things for people every day without expectation of reciprocation. He attributes many of the positive things in his life to this practice.
Recent research shows that even small kindnesses have a ripple effect through society. The excellent film “Kindness is Contagious” explores this idea:
In 2010, James Fowler published “Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He found that each act of kindness led to an average of 3 new acts of kindness in a kind of chain reaction:
The results suggest that each additional contribution a subject makes to the public good in the first period is tripled over the course of the experiment by other subjects who are directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more as a consequence.
Here’s a good summary of the work. And this summary describes the impact of uncooperative behavior:
The contagious effect in the study was symmetric; uncooperative behavior also spread, but there was nothing to suggest that it spread any more or any less robustly than cooperative behavior, Fowler said.
Adam Grant’s excellent book “Give and Take” has related insights:
Witnessing acts of kindness and compassion causes a positive physiological shift in the viewer called “moral elevation”:
New insights are emerging from the study of the “Neuroscience of Empathy“. Empathy can be cultivated through simple practices like “Metta meditation”:
Many studies have shown that mindfulness meditation that includes LKM (loving-kindness meditation) can rewire your brain. Practicing LKM is easy. All you have to do is take a few minutes everyday to sit quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to: 1) Family and friends. 2) Someone with whom you have tension or a conflict. 3) Strangers around the world who are suffering. 4) Self-compassion, forgiveness and self-love to yourself.
Doing this simple 4-step LKM practice literally rewires your brain by engaging neural connections linked to empathy. You can literally feel the tumblers in your brain shift and open up to empathy by spending just a few minutes going through this systematic LKM practice.
Check out this inspiring little film demonstrating the “Kindness Boomerang”: