Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, studies the emotions of uplift, and he has tried everything from showing subjects vistas of the Grand Canyon to reading them poetry—with little success. But just this week one of his postdocs came in with a great idea: Hook up the subjects, play Barack Obama’s victory speech, and record as their autonomic nervous systems go into a swoon.
In his forthcoming book, Born To Be Good (which is not a biography of Obama), Keltner writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing “a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.” For the 66 million Americans who voted for Obama, that experience was shared on Election Day, producing a collective case of an emotion that has only recently gotten research attention. It’s called “elevation.”
Keltner believes certain people are “vagal superstars”—in the lab he has measured people who have high vagus nerve activity. “They respond to stress with calmness and resilience, they build networks, break up conflicts, they’re more cooperative, they handle bereavement better.” He says being around these people makes other people feel good. “I would guarantee Barack Obama is off the charts. Just bring him to my lab.”
It was while looking through the letters of Thomas Jefferson that Haidt first found a description of elevation. Jefferson wrote of the physical sensation that comes from witnessing goodness in others: It is to “dilate [the] breast and elevate [the] sentiments … and privately covenant to copy the fair example.” Haidt took this description as a mandate. Since it’s tricky to study the vagus nerve, he and a psychology student conceived of a way to look at it indirectly. The vagus nerve works with oxytocin, the hormone of connection. Since oxytocin is released during breast-feeding, he and the student brought in 42 lactating women and had them watch either an inspiring clip from The Oprah Winfrey Show about a gang member saved from a life of violence by a teacher or an amusing bit from a Jerry Seinfeld routine.
About half the Oprah-watching mothers either leaked milk into nursing pads or nursed their babies following the viewing; none of the Seinfeld watchers felt enough breast dilation to wet a pad, and fewer than 15 percent of them nursed. You could say elevation is Oprah’s opiate of the masses, so it’s fitting that she early on gave Obama her imprimatur.
Chris Matthews must be changing shirts three times a day.