Researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK recently conducted a study about an emotion called moral elevation (Van de Vyver & Abrams, 2017). This emotion is a positive, warm, expansive feeling that occurs when we witness a virtuous act. When we watch a person do something that improves the welfare of another, we tend to admire that person and feel affection towards them. The researchers wondered whether experiencing moral elevation would then make people more likely to act altruistically themselves.
The study found that moral elevation correlates with behavioral activation, that is, interest and motivation to approach events and participate (versus behavioral inhibition, which is characterized by avoidance and withdrawal). When study participants experienced feelings of moral elevation, they were more likely to report wanting to help others and to demonstrate willingness and readiness to take action.
Another emotion was also found to be linked to behavioral activation: anger. Feelings of anger at watching a video of corporate corruption and injustice led to higher levels of prosocial motivation, that is, greater willingness to help others.
Not surprisingly, the emotion of shame was found to correlate more with inhibition. When we feel ashamed, we’re more likely to avoid taking action.
During a time when so much needs tending to in our local, national and global community, we would do well to take a moment and identify which emotional states inspire us towards action. You don’t have to be an activist to help others. We can all source and sustain the desire to help by simply accessing our most basic human feelings.