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"Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
In the midst of last year's economic turmoil President Barack Obama's inauguration speech was powerful, inspiring stuff. Some of his supporters, hanging on his every word, will have had tears in their eyes, a tingling sensation on the back of their necks and a warm feeling in their chest as though it was opening up to let love and hope flood out. This feeling is what Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, has labelled "elevation".
Elevation seems to be a universal feeling. Although not yet studied in modern-day pre-literate societies, it has been documented in people from Japan, India, the US and the Palestinian territories. That puts it in the same league as the Big Six. But to be considered as a basic emotion it should also have a purpose. If emotions are to fulfil their role as survival aids, they must motivate activities that help us thrive. So what is elevation for? Originally Haidt thought that it makes us nobler towards others. But when he asked volunteers to watch either an uplifting episode of Oprah or a non-uplifting scene from the sitcom Seinfeld, and then gave them a chance to help a stranger, there was no difference in behaviour between the two groups.
Career choices aside, some people believe the empathically accurate share specific personality traits as well. One of the essays in the book Empathic Accuracy, “Personality and Empathic Accuracy,” reviewed multiple studies on the subject to create a list of possible characteristics associated with the gift. Among them are a higher-than-average IQ and attention to detail, a good amount of trust in people, “social sensitivity” (being aware of social norms and others’ opinions), sociability, and self-awareness. People who can read others don’t necessarily have all of these traits, but they’re the ones that came up most often among the most successful empaths in the study.
What doesn’t seem to be a factor in someone’s empathic accuracy is one that many people consider highly important—gender. But one study Ickes and his colleagues performed showed that women, often thought to be the more intuitive sex, proved so only when they were reminded of the supposedly innate skill. Two researchers at the University of Oregon took these findings further by assigning men and women to people-reading tasks and offering them either no payment or payment for being successful. When given nothing, women outperformed men. But with financial incentive, the men were able to match the women in empathic accuracy. Apparently, the only difference between a man’s and a woman’s ability to read someone else is a matter of motivation.
Every neighborhood has a house where all the kids gather. The Stanton's two-story brick house in Chicago's northwest corner is that one. With a basketball hoop out front, a wooden swing set in the back, there's always something going on at the Stanton's.
Family friend Mary Duffy says it's a place where they raise kids, not grass. The Stantons had four, ranging from age 8 to almost 2, all cherished in their own way, but none quite like their second youngest, Danny.
Danny loved sports -- soccer, kickball, football -- but was stunning at baseball. He was too young to join a league but eagerly filled in playing fast-pitch with 7-year-olds when they were down a man, and the big kids always welcomed him into their games.
Watching the smallest boy on the field hit and run the bases in a winning championship game this past summer, parents were awed by Danny's talent, which was advanced beyond his age. "Everyone just sat there thinking, what is going to become of this little boy?" Duffy said.
Danny was buddies with Mary's son, Charlie, the same age but extremely shy. During one of the regular kickball games outside the Stanton's home, Danny noticed Charlie on the sidelines, grabbed him by the hand and brought him into the house.
"Danny thought, 'Well, he doesn't want to play sports, here's all my action figures,' and laid them all out in front of him," Duffy recalled. "Danny created that environment for him. Danny figured it out."
His charity didn't end once he left the ball field, or a neighbor's yard. He seemed to sense when people around him needed a hand, even the grown-ups. Danny loved to help next-door neighbor Betty Lazzara carry in her groceries.
"I'd always try to give him a light bag," Betty said, "but Danny would say, 'I can carry that gallon of milk'" and would lug it into her house. He knew a treat from Lazzara's snack drawer would be waiting -- fruit roll-ups or Gushers were his favorites -- and Danny always asked to take home enough for his brothers and older sister, too.
He remembered details about the lives of people he met. He'd call out to the older neighbor across the street, "Hey Jim, are you going golfing today?" And when he'd see older men at the local YMCA, Danny would give them a smile and a high-five.
Learning the Tricks of the Trade
Regardless of whether you’re male or female, socially inept or socially graceful, everyone has the power to read others better. It just takes patience, practice, effort, and—perhaps most importantly—knowing yourself primarily. After all, if you’re not present enough to understand your own thoughts and feelings, how can you understand anyone else’s? Jodi recommends practicing meditation as a way to encourage mindfulness and inner peace. She also practices Feldenkrais, a movement method meant to increase awareness of one’s own body. It’s taught her to recognize the facets of another person’s body and experiences while maintaining cognizance of her own.
Haidt's next idea was born of the choked feelings that people often report when they describe experiencing elevation. This hints that the vagus nerve is involved because it is responsible for stimulating the throat and neck muscles. Activation of the vagus nerve is also linked to the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which generates warm, calm feelings - just the sort associated with elevation. Could oxytocin be the key? The inspiration for how to test this idea came from his student, Jennifer Silvers, who pointed out that oxytocin makes nursing mothers release milk.
So in a second round of experiments, Haidt and Silvers showed the same videos to breastfeeding mothers. They found that after watching Oprah mothers were more likely to leak milk into a nursing pad. They also spent more time nursing and hugging their babies than the mothers who watched the Seinfeld video (Emotion, vol 8, p 291). "Oxytocin doesn't make people go out and give money to charity, it doesn't make people help strangers jump-start their cars, it makes them want to touch, hug and be more open and trusting with each other," says Haidt.