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Let Us Elevate Together

At this time of the year, most of us are celebrating something, whether a religious holiday, the winter solstice, or just a new calendar year to look forward to. In the States, the relentless holiday cheer can be overwhelming. But there can be real emotion behind it: an emotion becoming famous recently as elevation.

Elevation, according to University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is feelings of hope, inspiration and connectedness, but not with another person. Rather, with an idea, an ideal or a leader. An interesting experiment by Haidt shows that this emotion is also produced by oxytocin, probably acting via the vagus nerve. (The vagus is also involved in satisfaction from food and sex.)

Haidt brought lactating women and their babies to his lab and showed them a video of either a Seinfeld clip (the control) or an inspiring segment from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Half the mothers who watched Oprah either leaked breast milk or nursed their babies; none of the Seinfeld group did.

Elevation is discussed in a new book, Born to Be Good, by Dacher Keltner, which comes out in the next week or two. Keltner provides the vagus nerve connection.

From Emily Yoffe of Slate (by way of Mark Hemingway at the National Review):

Keltner believes certain people are "vagal superstars"—in the lab he has measured people who have high vagus nerve activity. "They respond to stress with calmness and resilience, they build networks, break up conflicts, they're more cooperative, they handle bereavement better." He says being around these people makes other people feel good. "I would guarantee Barack Obama is off the charts. Just bring him to my lab."

He says that oratory is a powerful way of inducing elevation, which is why a good speech can turn the audience into a unified group. Oxytocin and vagus nerve stimulation would seem to be behind the feelings we experience at political rallies, in church, at sports events and a variety of other group experiences.

It can be all too easy to snicker at other people's moments of elevation if we don't share their particular passion. Personally, I'm going to try during this season to find and honor elevation wherever I can.