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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all wanna be happy, right? But I have a little surprising, unhappy news about happiness — it can be selfish. Here’s what one study showed:

So happiness and goodness can be separate. There’s the “pleasure” type of happiness that comes from just eating ice cream but then there’s the warm kind that comes from helping friends.

What kind of happy do we want to be? And which one, in the end, is better?

One researcher found out and he did it in the craziest way possible: he started by studying what disgusts us. He looked at things that were universally morally offensive — and learned a few things you and I need to know to be truly happy.

Go down this rabbit hole with me, won’t you?


Elevation Isn’t Just For Elevators

NYU professor Jonathan Haidt was studying moral disgust. He found all religions have a notion of purity and pollution. Now discussions about morality and science don’t usually get along too well but he thought there was something here worth digging into.

He found we all seem to be wired for moral disgust. Ask people to put on a jacket worn by a serial killer and many just won’t do it. Irrational? Yes. But they still balk. It felt icky.

Haidt found this with a number of morally disgusting things that wouldn’t actually hurt you or anyone else.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

But this made Haidt think: if we all have negative moral emotions, shouldn’t the opposite exist too? Universal positive moral emotions? And after some research he found they did exist.

When we see others do morally good things like helping an old woman or donating to charity it can inspire a deeper and different type of happiness. He called it “elevation.”

And it was physically distinct from the ice cream/pleasure happiness. People felt different when they experienced elevation than mere pleasure. They got warm, tingly feelings.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

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Other studies were done around the world. It seemed to be universal. Elevation wasn’t just “feeling nice” — people said it moved their hearts.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

But here’s where it gets really interesting: elevation didn’t just make people feel better — it motivated people to be better. It changed their behavior. In a study called “Witnessing excellence in action” the researchers reported:

And they did go on to help others. A study titled, “Elevation predicts domain-specific volunteerism 3 months later”… well, it showed exactly that.

When your boss gives you a compliment, you feel good. That’s pleasure. But what about leaders that really inspire their employees?

Yup, that’s elevation again. A leader’s actions spoke louder than their words. Another study by Haidt showed:

And yet another study showed one group of new mothers a clip of a musician thanking his mentor. The second group of moms watched some Jerry Seinfeld comedy. Both made them happier. But which one made the moms more likely to hug their kids?

The first one. It elevated them.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

So how do we not just get happy but make sure we get elevated? (Or as the theme song from “The Jeffersons” goes, how do we start “Movin’ on up”?) Here are four ways from the research:


1) Watch An Inspiring Movie

I figure we’ll start simple. Yup, watching movies can cause elevation. (Whoever thought Netflix would make you a better person?)

But not any movie will do — it’s gotta be one that powerfully shows someone helping others or being a moral role model.

Skeptical? You shouldn’t be. In fact, this is how some of those studies were performed. Show people a story about Mother Theresa and they feel good and want to help others. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” made people laugh, but didn’t elevate them.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

And, yes, watching an inspiring film was enough to generate that special kind of happiness.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, watching movies is pretty easy. What’s a little more challenging but much more powerful?


2) Write About The Good Moments

Thinking nice thoughts is good but writing is different. James Pennebaker’s research has shown that when we write about difficult things in our lives it can help us cope better.

And when you scribble about doing good things or seeing moral things, boom — you can get to elevation.

In the study, “The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences” they showed that writers not only felt happier, they also improved their health:

(To learn the single most powerful, research-backed way to increase happiness, click here.)

I know, I know: writing can feel like homework. So what’s a fun way to get elevated?

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy


3) Spend Time With Good People

Got a friend who is always kind and generous to others? Spend more time with them. Not only will you feel good, but just like mom told you, good people do rub off on you.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

And keep in mind the opposite is true as well. Just like mom said, don’t hang out with the bad kids.

From The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

When I spoke to Stanford GSB professor Bob Sutton, he told me his #1 piece of advice to students was this:

(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)

And what’s the single best way to not only be happy, but to become “elevated”?


4) Do Good To Feel Good

UVA professor Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, talks about how doing good makes us become good:

Now money can bring pleasure, right? But if you want to experience elevation, spend it on someone else. Research shows this actually produces more happiness than spending it on yourself.

From Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

Harvard professor Michael Norton explains in his TED talk:

Here’s the most interesting part of doing good to feel elevation: people see you helping others and the elevation spreads. Haidt’s research shows it can cause an upward spiral for everyone around you:

(To learn how to help others without being a martyr, check out tips from Wharton’s Adam Grant here.)

Alright, you’re “movin’ on up.” Let’s round up what we’ve gleaned and learn what really makes elevation so special…

Eric Barker: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful


Sum Up

Here’s what we learned about elevation — the best way to be happier:

  • Watch inspiring movies: Seeing stories of others doing good makes you happier and makes you want to be good.
  • Write about the good moments: Thinking’s nice but writing is better.
  • Spend time with good people: Hang out with the good kids, like mom told you.
  • Do good to be good: Be the one who elevates others and karma can be a very real thing.

“Elevation” may be a new idea to social science but the concept has been around a long time. Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following:

As we all know, there are different kind of unhappiness (anger, sadness, frustration, etc.) But now we’ve learned there are different kinds of happiness as well.

Jonathan Haidt recounts the words of someone talking about how even our tears can differ. Some come when we are sad, but much like the difference between happiness and elevation, tears can also mean joy.

From Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived:

Simple pleasures are nice but seeing others do good and doing good ourselves can produce a more powerful type of happiness that inspires, motivates, and makes the world a better place.

Happiness doesn’t need to be selfish. And neither do you.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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