Not long ago, a woman named Chris went with a friend to Disneyland. There in the massive parking lot of the Magic Kingdom, two other women approached asking if they would like free passes to the “Happiest Place On Earth.” The women offering the gift said they had two extra, and just wanted to give the other two away. This simple act of generosity reminded Chris and her friend of the kindness of others, and restored within her a reminder that people are intrinsically good. In fact, that charitable act inspired her to be more kind and generous herself.
That reaction is not unusual. When anyone sees another person acting in a way that is generous, kind or compassionate, it literally inspires that person to “mirror” the action. In other words, goodness is catching. It even has a name. Research done by Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, confirms it. Dr. Haidt calls it “Elevation.” Elevation is the emotion people feel when they witness what he calls “moral beauty.” When we see, read or merely hear about other people’s courage, compassion and good works, there is a very strong likelihood that we will go out and do the same.
According to Haidt, “Elevation seems to have a ripple effect, triggering cognitive, emotional and behavioral changes. It makes people more open, more loving, grateful, compassionate and forgiving.” This act of goodness needn’t be extraordinary either. Simple acts of unexpected generosity like tickets to Disneyland or letting someone else go in front of you at the checkout counter can spark amazing feelings. Other studies by Haidt have demonstrated that just seeing the photograph of people like Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela can initiate a dramatically positive response. It isn’t just a mental thing either. Haidt and his associates have been able to monitor how elevation affects the heart rate. Further study is sure to show an entire range of positive physical responses.
While Haidt may be one of the first researchers to scientifically prove the existence of elevation, the concept has been with us for centuries. The contemplation of virtue has long been the study of philosophers and theologians. However, now during the twenty-first century “energy crisis,” those of us in the everyday world may want to tap into this largely unlimited source of power. Imagine what could happen if enough of us inspired each other to simple and random acts of generosity or kindness?
Another researcher from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, named Anne Foerst, seems to support this work from a different angle. Her studies focus on what she calls “mirror neurons.” These neurons lie in the pre-motor cortex of the brain and are “monkey-see, monkey-learn” cells. In other words, lying deep within each of our brains, are mirror neurons that respond in the brain of the watcher to that of the performer. These built in “copycat cells” may explain how a newborn baby learns to smile by mimicking their mother.
What these two different studies suggest is that when we watch others do anything, there is something within us that instinctually (and sometimes unconsciously) responds to that action. When we see others do good, elevation, or our mirror cells, illicit the same response within us and we feel compelled to go out and be kind. If that is true, then whenever we see others do something that is not good or kind, we very likely could be triggered to respond accordingly.
What does this all mean for you and me? Clearly there is a correlation between what we watch, what we read, what we talk about, and what we do. Just like mother always warned with, “Don’t hang out with the wrong crowd,” everything we allow in our minds and hearts will probably be reflected in our life. And even if we resist the automatic response of our mirror cells, when viewing something less than good, we are waging a violence against ourselves that can no longer be denied.
This tension is evident in regards to the conflict between our government and the Middle East. While most people I know, myself included, believe that peace should prevail, seldom does a day go by when I don’t talk to, or at least hear from someone by email, about the need to “battle” the policies of our government. Perhaps you are tougher than me, but whenever I hear a group of people berating and criticizing the actions of our current administration, a deep sense of despair and hopelessness begins to well up inside of me. If I allow that depression to stay present in me and grow, not only am I completely ineffective in regards to a positive reaction, my entire life is colored with the same desolation. In turn, if I then go and “spread” that gloom around, I infect others with my own despair. After all, if goodness is catching, then fear, anger and hopelessness is as well.
Now I’m not advocating that you ignore a situation that clearly needs your attention. If someone is kicking you in the shins, it won’t make any difference if you stand there and just think positive thoughts. You want them to stop! However, standing there and whining won’t do any good either. Action is vital and necessary, but the way you choose to respond mentally and physically affects you, and everyone around you.
A long time ago I read a story that says each of us carries around a bucket on each one of our shoulders. In one bucket, on one side, we carry water. Water symbolizes life and nourishment on our planet. Water has the ability to cool and restore. On our other shoulder we carry a bucket of gasoline. When added to anything it either ignites and flames the fire, or kills whatever lies there. Whenever we encounter anything, be it a conversation, a situation, or any activity, we dump one of the buckets from one of our shoulders. If we’re dumping water then we nourish those around us, giving life and love to the situation. If we dump gasoline, we ignite the flame of fear and anger. It’s that simple. In any given moment, we are either catching and giving goodness, or catching and giving fear.
I believe most of us intuitively know how strongly our words and behavior impact those around us—the scientific proof of this phenomenon only confirms our natural insight. We’ve seen how one tiny simple act of kindness can bring a smile to someone’s face in an instant and transform that person’s whole day. We probably only pretend not to know to avoid the deep responsibility that such a knowing asks.
Goodness is catching. So is fear. Which are you going to spread today?
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” ~Buddha
“The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises.” ~Leo Buscaglia