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Awe and Elevation

written by Kathryn Britton 7 May 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Keltner and Haidt characterize awe as an experience of vastness and accommodation. Vastness is not hard to understand. We feel it when we look at the stars, when we see hurricanes and their aftermath, even when we perceive charismatic leaders with human reaches far beyond what we can imagine for ourselves. Accommodation occurs when we are surprised in a way that challenges our comfortable mental structures. The challenge leads to confusion, disorientation, and sometimes enlightenment and rebirth.

Elevation is closely related to awe. According to Haidt (2003), “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.”

Keltner and Haidt claim that elevation requires accommodation but does not involve vastness. I don’t entirely agree. I think part of the experience of elevation is feeling that the other person’s generosity or bravery or self-sacrifice is vast compared to our own. The accommodation creates a sense of new possibility, that perhaps we ourselves are capable of far more than we dreamed before.

For a quick experience of elevation, try watching the 3-minute movie, Simple Truths about Service inspired by Johnny the Bagger. Johnny has Downs syndrome and works as a bagger in a grocery store. Barbara Glanz gave a speech in his store, making the statement, “Every one of you can make a difference and create memories for your customers that will motivate them to come back.” The movie is about the actions that Johnny took, how customers responded, and the effect on other employees. There is a vast discrepancy between what people expect of a grocery store bagger with Downs Syndrome and what Johnny accomplishes. For people with low opinions of their own ability to make a difference, seeing this movie can spark accommodation, “If he can have such an effect, why can’t I?”

Haidt and Silvers (2008) performed a study with 45 nursing mothers. The mothers who watched a morally elevating movie clip leaked more milk into nursing pads, were more likely to nurse their babies and showed more warmth to their babies than those who watched comedy clips. From this, Silver and Haidt hypothesize that morally elevating experiences increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding, trust, and openness. There is also a short description of this study in Haidt (2006).

Why do awe and elevation matter? Experiencing elevation makes us feel lifted up and optimistic about the human family. We become more open to others and perhaps more likely to help them. We can choose experiences that are likely to lead to elevation for ourselves and others around us. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he advised Robert Skipwith to include morally elevating fiction in his personal library:

“When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. … The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.” Thomas Jefferson letter, August 3, 1771.

Thomas Jefferson's Library

Thomas Jefferson's Library

This brings me back to the the power of stories. What works would you nominate for the positive canon? What stories inspire you when you are feeling dispirited, fill you with optimism, generate awe and elevation, remind you to be resilient, increase your understanding of others? Collect them and remember them when you need them. Many of mine are the children’s books I’ve been collecting all my life. I’ve just started working on a positive canon of children’s books after people started asking me for ideas of books to read to their children. I’d love to hear about books that made a difference to you as you grew up.



Glanz, B. & Blanchard, K. (no date). Simple truths about service inspired by Johnny the Bagger. Video.

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. Keyes and J. Haidt (eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books. Review

Jefferson, T. (1771, 1905). The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 2. Retrieved May 7, 2007 from http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&;staticfile=show.php&;title=755&;search=%22skipwith%22&;layout=html#chapter_86018

Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe: A moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Silvers, J. & Haidt, J. (2008). Moral elevation can induce nursing. Emotion, 2, 291-295. Abstract


Thanks to Ted Hubbard for sharing the link to the Johnny Bagger with fellow MAPP alumni. In his words, “Positive Psychology in action at the workplace. Well worth the 3 minutes.”

Thanks also to Jon Haidt who provided the pointer to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Robert Skipwith.

Thomas Jefferson Library courtesy of orphum

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1 comment

Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 9:48 am

May 8, 2008

Dear Senia:

RE: Forwarded email below
Simple Truths about Service inspired by Johnny the Bagger.

This was a beautifully inspiring presentation, with a message to last a lifetime.

Thank you for recommending this website as a resource and helping me to register for the email delivery service.

Best regards,
Barry Elias


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