Elation: A Christian Evaluation of Positive Psychology’s New Emotion

Positive psychologists are the psychological community’s optimists.  One of the goals of positive psychology is to reevaluate human nature and human potential in order to draw out the more positive aspects like compassion, self-sacrifice, and the capacity for self-transcendence.   The new thing in the field is an emotion called “elevation,” or “the Obama factor” as University of California-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner calls it, described in this Slate article.  Keltner tries to study the emotion of “elation” by reproducing it in a lab.  Ordinarily, this is easy to do.  If you want to study disgust, show video of  someone vomiting and then proceed with a brain scan.  If you want to study compassion, video of a starving child in Africa with flies in his eyes normally does the trick.  But elation, it turns out, is a lot harder to coax in the lab . . . that is, until Keltner got the idea of showing video of Barack Obama’s victory speech.  Turns out, our president-to-be was just the stimulus needed to recreate “elation” in the minds of Keltner’s subjects.

You probably haven’t heard a lot about the emotion called “elation.”  The word was coined by positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who I have written about here.   Haidt describes elation as that strong motivational tendency towards moral improvement that comes from the feeling of being “lifted up” in an optimistic response to some elevating stimulus.  The emotion elation is elicited by witnessing acts of virtue or moral beauty, or as Haidt describes, “a manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.”

Haidt got the idea of elation from reading Thomas Jefferson’s letters, who he feels perfectly encapsulates the characteristics of elation:

[E]very thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any … 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. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise (emphasis mine).

In Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical anthropology (also called his “moral psychology”), emotions are called “passions,” from the Latin word passio meaning “suffering,” but connoting the idea of “being acted upon.  According to Aquinas, a passion is a movement of the sensitive appetite (the appetite that perceives and responds to sensory perception) either towards or away from some perceived  (sensory) good or evil.  For example, fear is the sensitive appetite’s movement away from some perceived evil, whereas desire is the sensitive’s appetite’s movement towards some good (see I-II, Q. 59, art. 1 for a good summary of what the passions are).

In and of themselves, the passions are neither good nor evil.  In fact, many of the same passions seen in human behavior are also evident in the behavior of animals.  The difference between human passion and animal passion is reason.  Aquinas thinks that all human passion must be subordinated to reason (or the intellect).  This subordination to the rational appetite  is not in the way a slave subordinates himself to a master, what Aquinas calls a “tyrannical rule” over the passions whereby the passions do only what the intellect tells them to do.  Rather, the process is more dialectical, a process Aquinas calls “political rule.”  The sensitive appetite perceives some sensory object like a suspicious stranger or a beautiful sunset and in the process of this perception, is moved to feel something like fear or joy.  This is called the “antecedent movement of the sensitive appetite.”  If all is right within the person, the sensitive appetite then presents the perceived object to the intellect for evaluation, which then gives the passion a moral quality.  If the intellect determines that the sensitive appetite responded to the perceived stimulus correctly, the passion is deemed morally good; if the intellect determines that the sensitive appetite’s response was inadequate, the passion must be changed or else it becomes immoral.

An example may help clarify things.  If I see a tall black person walking on the street at night and I clutch my purse tighter, I am acting out of a passion called fear.  In an of itself, this passion is neither moral or immoral.  When  my sensitive appetite presents this object to the intellect, however, my intellect may determine that I don’t act out of fear when I come across tall white men at night and that I probably responded in fear due to some latent racism.  The intellect then tells the sensitive appetite not to be afraid.  If the sensitive appetite obeys, then the internal moral mechanisms in me are in order.  If I continue to feel afraid unnecessarily due to my latent racism, I am then indulging an immoral emotion.

Another example might be the joy I experience when I eat Jelly Belly jelly beans.  As I am experiencing pleasure and joy from my candy fix, my sensitive appetite is continuously presenting the object of my enjoyment to the intellect.  The intellect determines what degree of enjoyment is moderate, or temperate, and then informs my sensitive appetite when my enjoyment is getting excessive like when I start eating too many delectable beans.

The point is, emotions themselves are neither good nor bad until they are evaluated by reason.  The emotion of joy is only a good emotion if the object of enjoyment is good, like a conversation with a friend.  Joy becomes immoral when the object of enjoyment is bad, like mocking a person or gossiping.  The danger with introducing an emotion like “elation” is mistaking this emotion for a prima facie good.  Elation is fine and moral if I experience this feeling of transcendence and human excellence when I watch a video on Mother Theresa or read a newspaper article about a fireman going back into a burning building to rescue someone.  However, if I experience elation when listening to a white supremacist, the emotion becomes quite immoral.

This brings me back to Dr. Keltner.  I am not so convinced that Barack Obama should be the preferred stimulus for inducing the feeling of elation.  Barack Obama is inspirational in some ways, especially in his historic status as the first black American president.  Surely it is a great feat for the United States to move so quickly from legislated segregation only a few decades ago to having the majority of the country vote for a black man.  But Barack Obama is also a political figure who has to compromise himself in many ways to get the job done (what Michael Walzer calls getting “dirty hands”).  He also holds some questionable views that Christians at the very least should have some distaste for, like supporting the legalization of partial birth abortion and other views regarding the protection of the pre-born.

However, the bigger issue that I am concerned about is that people are moved emotionally by political figures like Barack Obama and celebrities like Oprah (one of the tests Haidt used to study elation involved exposing lactating women to an episode of Oprah’s talk show), but these stimuli are largely phantasms.  No matter how strongly you feel about Barack Obama, chances are, you don’t know the guy.  You don’t know what kind of president he will be.  You probably don’t know what kind of senator he was.  No matter how inspiring you may think Oprah is, you probably know nothing about her but the image she puts on.  She could be a wretched person to her staff and family and friends, and you wouldn’t know at all.  So you have to ask yourself–is elation the appropriate response to the stimulus of Barack Obama or Oprah?

For Christians, I think our experience of elation should often be reigned in, knowing what we know about the sinful and fallen state of the world.  Surely, there are many great moral examples to follow, and many witnesses to the human capacity to transcend our fallen natures, but more often than not, human beings are selfish and self-justifying.  The white supremacist probably experiences elation when she listens to a David Duke speech.  The secular humanist probably experiences elation when he listens to Paul Kurtz or reads Nietzsche.  They experience elation because the stimulus is self-justifying.

Christians have long had a sense of the importance of elation for the moral life, however.  The writing of the Gospels was largely because Christians felt elated and were inspired to rise to new moral heights when they heard the story of Jesus.  The “Imitation of Christ” is a highly regarded spiritual tool for much of the same reason.  The stories of the saints were used to induce “elation” and compel Christians to become more virtuous, compassionate, and loving individuals.

The difference between Christian elation and what Haidt and Keltner are studying is that Christian elation is stimulated by God’s love for humanity and his mercy towards us, rather than what human beings achieve on their own.  The witness of Christ, the great saints of the Christian tradition, and holy men and women of today is not to the capacity that human beings have to transcend, but rather, they witness to the height, depth, and width of God’s love.  It is this stimulus alone which we know is always morally good, and which should compel the greatest experience of elation from us.

I am reading a book right now called The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination by Dale C. Allison which argues that the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is not just about internalizing the Jewish moral code or about advocating some perfectionist ethic, but is also a summary of Jesus’ deeds and a witness to his character.  Allison writes, “the First Gospel is about a figure who imaginately and convincingly incarnates his own moral imperatives.  Jesus embodies his speech; he lives as he speaks and speaks as he lives.  It is not going too far to say that Matthew 5-7 proclaims likeness to the God of Israel (5:48) through the virtues of Jesus Christ” (22).  Allison concludes this section of the book by stating, “If Aristotle regarded ‘the good man’ as the canon in ethics, in Matthew, Jesus is the canon of Christian morality.”  Christians should pay attention to what the positive psychologists tell us about elation, but they should strive to cultivate this “new” emotion in response to Christ, who alone is “praise, adored, and loved with grateful affection, even to the end of time.”

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1 comment so far

  1. […] Thomas Aquinas’ Views Featured in TIME Magazine Posted January 6, 2009 Filed under: Christianity, Ethics, Moral Theology, Philosophy, Thomas Aquinas, psychology, religion | Tags: Csikszentmihalyi, Diener, Fowler, friends, happiness, positive psychology, science, Seligman, Time, wealth | I am delighted with the feature article for the most recent Time Magazine.  I love it when an article substantiating everything Thomas Aquinas said 800 years is considered “news.”  The Time Magazine article is all about happiness, which I talked about here in my article on beatitude as providing the foundation of Aquinas’ ethics.  This article, however, is not so much about ethics but rather, positive psychology, which I also talked about here. […]


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