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Moral Elevation: Inspiring Others to Act Virtuously

It was in 1928 when a young girl from Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje parted ways with her native country and embarked on what would become one of history’s most inspirational journeys. For the young adolescent who was given the birth name Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, a deep yearning to do God’s work meant that she would say goodbye to her family, at only the age of 18, for the very last time. After spending the next year of her life studying English and preparing for the religious missionary work she so desperately wanted to undertake, at the Sisters of Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, the teenager who would soon become known as Mother Teresa made her way to India, the country she would recognize as home.

From the time of her initial arrival in India’s third largest city, Kolkata, in 1929 until her death in 1997, the simplistic girl from Macedonia transformed into a globally beloved figure who impacted the lives of millions with her unyielding desire to help the sick and poor.

While those who directly received Mother Teresa’s loving attention and care most benefited from her unparalleled levels of compassion and benevolence, her life story would undoubtedly inspire countless others, who she never came in contact with, to offer a helping hand to the world’s less fortunate citizens.

As her story of loving-kindness and selfless action spread around the globe, it is certain that individuals from all walks of life experienced the effects of moral elevation and developed their own aspirations to partake in charitable work. Even though it’ll be nearly impossible to impact the greater global community like Mother Teresa did, each and every one of us can use her inspiring story to remind ourselves of the power we have to elevate those around us by acting upon feelings of altruism, morality, and love.

What is Moral Elevation:

An image shows a picture of Mother Teresa compassionately holding a baby as a crowd of poverty stricken onlookers watches in awe. Mother Teresa's actions are a prominent example of moral elevation.Although prominent psychologists and researchers only began developing theories of moral elevation within the past 30 years, the conceptual idea was long before understood by some of history’s truly great thinkers. Most notably, the third President of the United States and primary author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson presumed in the late 18th century that after witnessing acts of charity and virtue by others, individuals naturally begin yearning to behave and help in similar ways. More recently, a number of important psychological figures began studying the notion of moral elevation in more formalized ways, and today there probably isn’t a more qualified individual to discuss the topic than Jonathan Haidt, a Social Psychologist and professor at New York University, who is considered an expert on morality and moral emotions. He tells us of moral elevation:

Elevation is elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.”

In the eyes of Hadit and other notable psychologists who study and research the effects of virtuous action, moral elevation is considered to be an emotion that’s closely related to awe and the contrasting opposite of disgust. When individuals witness others acting compassionately, altruistically, or selflessly, their typical reaction of appreciation and admiration is naturally accompanied by feelings of warmth. Additionally, observing morally virtuous behaviors often results in individuals feeling optimistic about humanity and creates an enhanced desire to become better persons. This is moral elevation.

The Beneficial Affects of Moral Elevation:

An image shows two Asian women working next to each other in a stream. One of the ladies is handing the other one something she found in the stream and both of them are smiling.When considering the fact that moral elevation is the complete opposite of disgust, it should be clear to see which of these emotions we should covet to experience most. Unfortunately, however, because our collective societies largely operate upon outdated evolutionary drives, the vast majority of individuals more regularly feel disgusted toward the actions of others instead of having a desire to emulate their behaviors.

Although this is the reality most of us face, which can be easily recognized by observing your emotional reactions to the nightly news, there are still a variety of experiences that promote feelings of moral elevation. Since Hadit and others began examining the truly life-affirming emotional state, a number of important scientific studies have shown how moral elevation can positively affect individuals.

Moral Elevation Positively Impacts Mental Health:

Some of the clearest evidence-based benefits attained from moral elevation have been seen at the level of mental health. Findings from a variety of different scientific studies point to a similarly diverse set of ways that individuals are positively impacted by feelings of elevation. In addition to stirring up a desire to act compassionately towards others, moral elevation has also been shown to increase the production of happiness hormones, such as oxytocin, and improve the psychological well-being of mentally ill individuals.

In one notable 2012 study conducted at the University of Michigan, researchers monitored the mental and emotional health of clinically depressed and anxious participants who were exposed to varying degrees of morally elevating stimuli over a ten-day period. Based on their research, the team was able to report that when participants felt morally elevated, they felt closer to others, had fewer interpersonal conflicts and the severity of distressing symptoms declined.

Moral Elevation Beneficially Transforms Larger Groups:

In the world of psychology, it is widely believed that strong emotions are contagious in nature because the feelings of one individual oftentimes transfer to others they come in contact with. Not only have scientific researchers been able to verify this theory by showing how individuals become morally elevated when witnessing the virtuous acts of others, but also by illuminating how moral elevation can more broadly transform the dynamics of larger groups.

In one important 2010 study, Jonathan Haidt, Michelangelo Vianello, and Elisa Maria Galliani explored the effects of moral elevation in the workplace. Based upon their research, the team was able to determine that an employer’s ability to emotionally elevate those around them with virtuous behavior can strengthen their employees’ attitudes and help cultivate a healthy organizational culture. Moreover, because moral elevation increases prosocial tendencies, inspirational emotion has the potential to unite whole communities.

Moral Elevation Amplifies Feelings of Spirituality:

Earlier in this article, we touched base on the idea that the vast majority of individuals experience the emotion of disgust more so than elevation because most people live from a perspective marred by fear, separation, and greed. While our most basic biological drives for safety, sex, and enhanced preservation do serve us well in some ways, they also curtail our levels of subjective well-being.

Fortunately, for those who’re looking to increase their levels of fulfillment, another important benefit of moral elevation is that it transforms the way individuals perceive the world. More specifically, researchers have determined that moral elevation amplifies feelings of spirituality. Science tells us that when people become morally elevated, they begin to see others and the world at large more benevolently. Additionally, moral elevation has been shown to increase individuals’ faith in humanity and helps them associate more meaning with their lives.

Elevating Ourselves to Inspire Others:

An image shows a female beggar asking for money on a Moscow street. If individuals see us act compassionately to the poor, the natural reaction of moral elevation can motivate them to take similarly kind actions.For anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of current events taking place around the globe, it is quite easy to recognize a vast array of troubling problems. Unfortunately, in today’s world, it seems as if unethical behavior has become so normalized that whenever newspapers print stories about corruption, violence, or racism, most individuals don’t even blink. Yet still, it’s perhaps even more disheartening to consider the fact that many citizens in Western countries feel compelled to complain about the smallest things that don’t go their way when millions of others around the globe don’t have enough food to eat or access to clean water.

While it is quite easy to ignore issues such as poverty, social injustice, and global warming, the truth is that because we are all part of one interconnected earth, we all have a role to play. Only when we take it upon ourselves as individuals to act with unyielding morality, virtue, and compassion, will we be able to collectively heal the world’s pain.  Fortunately, to hold up our end of this bargain, we can use our newfound knowledge of moral elevation to ignite far-reaching change. All we have to do is follow these three simple steps:

Practice Emotional Hygiene:

One of the single most life-affirming disciplines that we can undertake, for our own well-being and the welfare of others, is to begin practicing emotional hygiene. For individuals who are educated in the Western world, a great amount of emphasis is put on physical hygiene yet nearly no attention is paid to mental and emotional health. By making the decision to practice this equally important form of personal cleanliness, each of us can enjoy heightened levels of subjective well-being.

While it’ll be important to consciously monitor and evaluate the types of mental food you feed your brain in the forms of books, movies, and television shows, the single best thing each of us can do is to develop a meditation practice. By taking the time each day to spend time with yourself in meditative practices, you’ll increase your self-awareness in a way that improves your ability to care for the mental and emotional parts of yourself.

Find Inspiration that Elevates You:

By undertaking the practice of emotional hygiene, it is certain that we’ll find a variety of activities that aren’t beneficially serving the mental and emotional parts of ourselves. Upon coming to realize how unwholesome information and media negatively affect us, we’ll have to find alternatives that are more life-affirming. By committing ourselves to primarily intaking materials with uplifting messages, we’ll begin experiencing more happiness and joy. One of the most interesting things that moral elevation experts tell us is that while the emotion is most often referenced to firsthand encounters, individuals can experience the uplifting feelings of elevation when reading books, watching movies, and visiting websites. This is precisely how Mother Teresa was able to inspire countless individuals even though she never crossed paths with the majority of them. Additionally, by committing ourselves to spiritual development and growth, we can even further increase our feelings of elevation.

Actively Search for Opportunities to Inspire:

If an individual were only to commit themselves to the practices of emotional hygiene and consuming inspirational material, it is certain that their life would drastically change for the better. This, however, isn’t the primary purpose of moral elevation because the quintessential goal is to inspire others to take altruistic action. Each and every day there are a wide range of ways that we can help both those around us and the strangers we don’t know, and it should be one of our most important daily intentions. Of course, by taking care of ourselves emotionally and by consciously bringing about feelings of elevation within ourselves, we’ll be on our way to helping others in the biggest of ways. Yet still, it’s important to actively search for opportunities to inspire the people we come in contact with and we can do so by partaking in activities that benefit our communities such as volunteering. Additionally, although it’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re too busy or have better thighs to do when we have the chance to act spontaneously compassionate, it is actually one of the single most important and life-affirming things we can do.

Seeing that each of us only has one life to leave our mark on the world, it should be our foremost objective to regularly inspire others with actions of virtue, morality, and compassion. Only by individually taking it upon ourselves to beneficially transform the lives of people we come in contact with, will we be able to collectively transform the planet. Now, more so than ever, it is time to act on the righteous advice of the one and only Mother Teresa:

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

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