Studying the emotion of "elevation"

UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner is a pioneer in the study of an emotion known as "elevation," characterized by a "a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat." (Not be confused with heartburn.) Triggering that emotion in the lab is challenging. His research group's latest approach though is to play their subjects Barack Obama's victory speech. (My IFTF colleague Jason Tester has dubbed the impact of Obama on people's brains "neurobama.") Slate has a great profile of "elevation" research, including the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis. I also look forward to reading Keltner's forthcoming book on the subject of "elevation," titled Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (which is not an Obama biography). From Slate:
Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in "positive psychology"–what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, "Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration...."

We come to elevation, Haidt writes, through observing others–their strength of character, virtue, or "moral beauty." Elevation evokes in us "a desire to become a better person, or to lead a better life."
"Obama in Your Heart" (Slate), Buy "Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life" (Amazon), Buy "The Happiness Hypothesis" (Amazon)


  1. The research itself is an amazing idea. Inducing elevation, and in what way!!
    However, I disagree with the identification, implied in Keltner’s book title, between elevation and meaningness. Elevation need not necessarily involve meaningness: what about feeling elevated by petty or trivial things, or things otherwise unmeaningful; for instance: your opponent’s failure, rather than your own victory. Is that meaningful?
    I’m also not sure that meaningfulness necessarily involves a sense of elevation. Does it? Can’t someone lead a peaceful, quiet and meaningful life, without feeling elevated?

  2. I finally have a name for the feeling I get from the Discovery Channel’s “The World is Just Awesome” ads.

  3. There’s the pitch:

    High, higher than the sun
    You shoot me from a gun
    I need you to elevate me here
    At the corner of your lips
    As the orbit of your hips
    You elevate my soul


  4. It’s the feeling I get at the end of Disney movies. I always thought it was just called the “Ridiculous Soft Headed Fool” syndrome.

  5. I’ve always been grateful for moments of what I’ll now call “elevation.” I’ve found them to be free-floating and arbitrary, however, and can come at any time. For instance, Obama’s speech didn’t bring one on; but the sight of the joyous, weeping people in the crowd brought a veritable cluster.

  6. splendid, once the requisite neurotransmitters are identified and tbe manner of function in the brain is understood, this can serve as another part of my grand plan to have you all worship me correctly.

  7. Interesting, I didn’t know this was a common feeling. I’ve only regularly experienced it after smoking a bowl, so I figured it was just a particularly good kind of drug-induced body buzz.

    It’s probably just God’s way of letting me know He Approves of herb.

  8. Wow! I know that feeling exactly. I didn’t know there was a word for it. I learned to regularly induce it by listening the Daft Punk “Alive 2007” album while driving on the highway. Makes every commute a trip worth remembering. Human after all, baby.

  9. Alan Watts described the purpose of a zen koan as something that is meant to elicit a certain feeling that bubbles up deep from your gut. It’s like a joke. The feeling is very different when you don’t get it right away and when it is explained to you. The difference is between a belly-laugh and a throat-laugh. The difference is because the real meaning of a joke can’t be explained. Alan Watts talked about koans but the same is true of poetry and art and oratory and whatever else. Different messages will strike a chord (read: RESONATE) with different people.

    My point is that this feeling, not the same feeling as the feeling of laughter, Alan Watts called AWAKENING, not “elevation”.

    Scientists often ‘discover’ things that have been known about for thousands of years, things that run deep in our religious history– albeit forgotten over the last few hundred.

    However, I’ll be the first to admit that putting ancient ideas into modern scientific language (certainly a challenge in and of itself) tends to be more fruitful for engineering than when expressed in the language of poetry ;P It’s too bad that most of the scientists studying “elevation” probably only get the equivalent of a throat-laugh out of it (at best).

    In light of all this, the whole Obamamania thing has completely changed my view of politics. You heard it here first my friends: IDEOLOGY IS DEAD. You look around and see problems and corruption, but it doesn’t matter what laws are created, ethics legislation or whatever, because laws do not make people. It’s important to realize that all the people you see as corrupt in government and on wall street are a reflection of YOU. Congressmen and CEOs are just people. I used to be a fatalist libertarian but now I see that people en masse can be changed, all it takes is a positive, inspiring message. If you are truly inspired you can inspire others… That does not mean you should start a non-profit and buy commercials or protest and yell and scream or any of that shit. Ideology is dead and so is advocacy. All you have to do to inspire others in a real way is to BE INSPIRING. Ideology is dead because there are no answers to anything. Just BE GOOD, DO WHAT YOU LOVE, and DO WHAT’S RIGHT. That’s it.

    Obama’s real challenge: Can he inspire Congress?

  10. The Mary Ellen Carter, Rise Up, a bunch of Queen, really should do a survey of the past fifty years and publish the collected titles. Then it could be computer analyzed and the ultimate uplift song written.

  11. Sorry, meant:

    “The feeling is very different when you *get* it right away and from when it must be explained to you.”

    OR, alternatively,

    “The feeling is very different when you don’t get it right away, when it must be explained to you.”


    “The feeling is very different when you don’t get it right away and when it is explained to you.”


  12. nah,just crazy:
    “Mania might include:

    * Feeling like you can do anything, even something unsafe or illegal
    * Needing very little sleep, yet never feeling tired
    * Dressing flamboyantly, spending money extravagantly, living recklessly
    * Having increased sexual desires, perhaps even indulging in risky sexual behaviors
    * Experiencing hallucinations or delusions
    * Feeling filled with energy

    Some people think that they are just “over their depression” when they become manic, and don’t realize this exaggerated state is part of the illness – part of bipolar disorder. A person who has depression and mania is said to have Bipolar I.

    In addition to Bipolar Disorder I, the American system of diagnosing this disorder also includes Bipolar Disorder II, which involves symptoms of hypomania instead of full-blown mania.

    Hypomania – a less extreme form of manic episode – could include:

    * Having utter confidence in yourself
    * Being able to focus well on projects
    * Feeling extra creative or innovative
    * Being able to brush off problems that would paralyze you during depression
    * Feeling “on top of the world” but without going over the top.

    Hypomania does not include hallucinations or delusions, but a hypomanic person still might exhibit some reckless or inappropriate behavior. A person who has moods of depression and hypomania is said to have Bipolar II.”

  13. A couple of things: In terms of the melting heart and lump in the throat, Spielberg’s ET gives me that every dang time I see it.

    Secondly, I wanted to weigh in just briefly on mania. If you get those feelings as described above when you are high, that means you are high, not “elevated” and certainly not bi-polar. If you have ongoing depression and self-medicate with certain chemicals, you can put yoursef into a manic state. But if you or a doctor is trying to figure out if you are bipolar (i.e. depression and mania), you really can’t count when you were high as the manic part.

    If a doctor suspects you are bi-polar, based on the behaviors listed above they will not prescribe an anti-depressent (due to a concern that it will make you go manic.) They will instead prescribe a mood-stabilizer. The lamictal/lithium route is fine for some, but for many others it can present a frustrating and time consuming dead end.

  14. Great post, and great subject! If you’re interested in positive psychology and the sort of “good news” kinds of social science, check out the department at UC Berkeley where Keltner works: he’s the co-director of the Greater Good Science Center there, which publishes the fantastic quarterly magazine Greater Good. Haidt’s been profiled in the magazine recently as well…

  15. It’s the feeling you get when you learn your grant proposal for studying verklempt has been approved.

  16. I have experienced lots of elevation since having kids. Lots of aggravation, but lots of elevation.

  17. Give me help
    Give me help
    You can… levitate me
    Then take off them rings
    Off them hose
    Levitate me
    Higher place
    Levitate me
    Elevator lady (4x)
    Lady levitate me
    If all in all is true (3x)
    If all is true
    Won’t you please fawn over me (4x)
    Shaky shake… Shakey
    Levitate me
    Come on Pilgrim
    You know he loves you
    Levitate me
    Higer place
    Levitate me
    He kicked a baby
    Elevator lady (3x)
    Elevator Lady
    Lady. Lady. Levitate me
    If all in all is true (3x)
    If all is true
    Won’t you please run over me (5x)
    Me, me, me, me, …

    Pixies – Levitate Me lyrics

  18. elevation or escapism? any housewife feels it when they watch soap’s Todd tell Marty that before she lost her memory and they fell in love she was his rapist.

    or ask a hardcore fanfic/slash devotee. they troll through thousands of crappy fics to make those romance novel-esque plot devices of angsty happiness light up all the right parts of their brains and rumble down in their stomachs.

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