Greater Good

Can the Science of Lying Explain Trump’s Support?

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center

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Why Does Happiness Inequality Matter?

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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5 Habits of Highly Compassionate Men

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

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6 Habits of Highly Empathic People

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

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5 Habits of Highly Compassionate Men

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

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A Happy Life or a Meaningful One - Do We Really Need to Choose?

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. To view the original article, click here.

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Six Habits of Highly Empathic People

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

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5 Surprising Ways Oxytocin Shapes Your Social Life

"Five Surprising Ways Oxytocin Shapes Your Social Life" by Jeremy Adam Smith originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. You can view the original article here.

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An Age-Old Secret to Losing Weight

This story originally appeared on Greater Good, which covers "the science of a meaningful life," published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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Where Are All the Female Heroes and Superheroes?

My sons were bouncing on their beds before bedtime when I pulled out a new hand-me-down pair of pajamas for my youngest son, Julian. The top was covered with a bright blue-and-pink image of Kim Possible, Disney's teenage superhero.

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Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?

Three years ago, I became obsessed with global warming. Practically overnight, my worries about its potential effects outstripped my worries about so many other national and global issues, even personal ones.

Indeed, as the mother of two young boys, I began to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape on my children's little bodies and budding egos, but largely ignored the threat likely to put sizeable areas of the world, including parts of the coastal city where we live, underwater within their lifetime.

That year, 2005, marked a turning point for many people. After decades of observation, speculation, and analysis, the world's climate scientists had reached a consensus, and increasingly the general public was accepting it. As USA Today reported, "The Debate is Over: Globe is Warming."

The next step, scientists advised, was action. We needed to take significant and urgent steps to cut our dependence on fossil fuels by 25 percent or more, something NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, said we had only a decade to do if we were to avoid the great global warming tipping point-that level at which increased temperatures would unleash unprecedented global disasters.

So how are we doing?

Surely, some things have changed. Sales of the Toyota Prius and other hybrids have skyrocketed. Many of us have converted to the new energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. A flood of books are hitting the market offering tips about how to save the Earth. And there is a frenzy of advertising about everything from "eco-friendly" houses to "green" hair salons, showing just how widespread Americans' desire is to do the right thing for the environment.

Yet none of this adds up to the significant and urgent action scientists have called for. The question is why: Why don't more of us respond more seriously to the most serious threat to the planet in human history?

"Many climate scientists find the response to global warming completely baffling," says Elke Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change's Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group. According to Weber, climate scientists just can't understand why government and the public have been so slow to act on the extraordinary information these scientists have provided.

But now a growing number of social scientists are offering their expertise in behavioral decision making, risk analysis, and evolutionary influences on human behavior to explain our limited responses to global warming. Among the most significant factors they point to: The way we're psychologically wired and socially conditioned to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to react to the abstract and seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. Their insights are also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people to take action-including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing on people's fears.

Our misleading emotions

There are a significant number of researchers now devoted to studying how people decide that something is truly bad for them. They are called "risk-analysis scholars," and they believe there are, in general, two ways we may assess a risk such as global warming. One is through our analytic abilities, by which we examine the scientific evidence and make logical decisions about how to respond. This is the process that was used by climate scientists to reach the strong and clear conclusion that the risks of global warming are momentous and require immediate and significant action.

But most of us do not rely on our analytic abilities to evaluate the risk of global warming-or any risk, for that matter.

Instead, we rely on the second and more common way of perceiving risk: our emotions.

"For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a statistic. Risk is a feeling," says Weber. We are swayed by our feelings, and those feelings-while an essential part of the decision-making process-can be misleading guides, depending on the type of risk involved.

For example, in a recent paper on how emotion shapes risk perception, Weber cites the growing number of parents who choose to forego having their children vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. To most physicians, this is a highly irrational decision, since vaccinations help prevent serious illnesses and pose very slight risks. So why do parents make such decisions? Because when they learn that roughly one child out of 1,000 will suffer from high fever and one out of 14,000 will suffer seizures as a result of vaccinations, their emotions lead them to imagine that their child will be the one to suffer.

"If I feel scared," says Weber, "that overshadows any amount of pallid statistical information."

And perhaps most importantly, emotions, more than anything else, are what motivate us to act. As decades of behavioral decision research has shown, most people have to feel a risk before they do something about it.

In this way, our limited response to global warming is similar to our limited response to mass murder or genocide, according to Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies human judgment, decision making, and risk.

In a series of research papers, Slovic has explored why reports of genocide so often fail to stir us to action. These reports, he writes, usually stress the thousands or even millions of people who have been killed. In doing so, they speak to our analytic abilities but not our feelings. Slovic has found that people are much more likely to donate money to a cause after reading the story of a single victim than after reading a statistic citing a million victims.

Like genocide, the long-term consequences of global warming are so enormous we can't wrap our heads around them. Scientists predict in 40 years global warming will displace 20 million people from Beijing, 40 million from Shanghai and surrounding areas, and 60 million from Calcutta and Bangladesh. These statistics are daunting, but they're abstract; they don't inspire us to feel for the one individual whose life will be put at risk. As a result, we fail to take appropriate action.

And as with others, so with ourselves: It is emotions, such as fear or worry, that motivate us to protect ourselves from risk. With global warming, this presents an even more challenging situation because, says Weber, our emotions are shaped by two forms of past experience: either direct personal experience or evolutionary experience that still guides human behavior. We feel the hairs stand up on the back of our necks if someone in a dark alley appears dangerous. This happens because, from an evolutionary perspective, deep in our psyches we know what it feels like to have another human being physically threaten us. There's also the chance that we've been threatened or assaulted personally.

But we have no innate experience of global warming that tells us, from personal or evolutionary experience, that when we burn too many fossil fuels, it causes the build-up of greenhouse gases that trap warm air within the Earth's atmosphere, which, in turn, melts ice caps and glaciers, raises ocean levels, and causes hurricanes to intensify, floods to worsen, droughts to increase, lakes and water supplies to disappear, and, as in any such dire and threatening circumstance, famine and warfare to spread. As dramatic as these scenarios are, we can't feel them because we haven't experienced them (yet). Human-driven climate change is simply unprecedented.

"Global warming doesn't make evolutionary sense to us," says Weber. "Our minds haven't adjusted to the much more complex technological risks that are removed in space and time."

Timing is everything

Our lack of past experience with global warming is also exacerbated by the fact that global warming is not a clear and present danger but, rather, something that is projected to reveal its most dramatic consequences decades from now.

"It's a very well established fact about human behavior," says Slovic, "that we discount future negative outcomes a great deal, especially if it means having to postpone some immediate positive benefit, such as the convenience of driving our car." He likens our attitudes toward the future risks of global warming to how teenagers discount the risk of smoking, despite abundant evidence of its risks.

"Young people tend not to be quite clear about whether there will be consequences from their smoking, what they would be, and what it would be like for them," he says. "The future risk is not imaginable, and that tends to make people more complacent."

The fact that global warming appears to represent a hazard of nature also leads people to underestimate the risk. "People don't respect nature and what it can do," says Slovic. "They feel nature is benign, even though it really isn't."

Case-in-point: He contrasts the response to Hurricane Katrina with the response to September 11. "After Katrina, people started to pay more attention to strengthening the levies even though the information was available in advance. There was a short period of time when there was a heightened response, then it dampened."

The response to September 11, in contrast, has been far more significant and long-lasting, even though, he says, "from a physical damage standpoint, 9-11 was relatively smaller." The difference was that Katrina, which many scientists believe was fueled by human-driven global warming, seemed like an act of nature, and that failed to trigger our millennia-old fears of having our homes and lives invaded by a stranger-fears evoked by September 11.

Reality vs. worldview

A third obstacle that limits people's response to global warming-and even their willingness to believe in it-is also one of the most intractable. In a series of recent studies, a group of scholars from Yale and other universities have been studying how cultural values shape our perceptions of risk. Based on the premise that Americans are culturally polarized on a range of societal risks, from global warming to gun control, Paul Slovic, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, and others analyzed the results of surveys and experiments that matched the risk perceptions of some 5,000 Americans to the worldviews of those Americans. Their finding: People may simply reject evidence that clashes with their worldview.

"To a certain extent our attitude toward risk and behaviors are conditioned not just by the raw facts of the matter, but by the orientation that we have to the world," says Slovic.

In the case of global warming, researchers found two general worldviews that seemed to have the most significant influence on perception and action. One group consists of egalitarians, or people who prefer a society where wealth, power, and opportunity are broadly distributed. Researchers called the other group the hierarchists, those who prefer a society that is linear in its structure, with leaders on top and followers below.

"What we've seen through this research is that egalitarians are generally more concerned about environmental risks over a range of hazards, including global warming. Hierarchists tend to be less concerned," says Slovic. In fact, he says, when it comes to perceptions of risk, one's worldview is vastly more influential than other individual characteristics, such as race or political ideology.

The researchers also found that when proposed solutions to global warming clash with people's worldviews, those people are more likely to reject evidence of the problem altogether. For example, in one experiment, Kahan and his colleagues gave two groups of people two contrasting newspaper articles about global warming. Both reported the problem in similar terms: temperatures were rising, human behavior was the cause of climate change, and global warming could lead to disastrous environmental and economic consequences if left unaddressed. But the articles then went on to offer different solutions: one called for increased regulation of pollution emissions, while the other called for revitalization of nuclear power.

When people with a hierarchical worldview received the article that called for increased regulation-policies currently associated with a more egalitarian and liberal worldview-they were more likely to reject that global warming was a problem than when they received the article that called for a revitalization of nuclear power.

This research helps explain the attitudes and behaviors of global warming skeptics. Slovic says it also shows how difficult it is to communicate persuasively when people feel their worldview is challenged. "The truly disconcerting thing about this work is that it shows how difficult it is to change people's views and behaviors with factual information," says Slovic.

"People spin the information to keep their worldview intact." They do their best to hold onto their worldviews, says Slovic, because so much of their personal identity and social networks are tied up in maintaining it.

Fearful futures, hopeful actions

With such significant obstacles to spurring action on global warming, what can social scientists recommend about how to inspire the necessary response?

First, communication about global warming needs to reach people's emotions and trigger fear, and that means emphasizing the dramatic consequences to come. "It is only the potentially catastrophic nature of (rapid) climate change (of the kind graphically depicted in the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow) and the global dimension of adverse effects, which may create hardships for future generations, that have the potential for raising a visceral reaction to the risk," Elke Weber writes in a recent paper on why global warming doesn't scare us yet.

This means making future hardships vivid, imaginable, personalized, and credible, says Slovic. For example, he suggests that people communicating about global warming answer the questions: "How will it change the whole economy and whole quality of life in a particular region? Will the forests die out? Will the summers be so hot and dry that the Earth will be uninhabitable?"

In setting out to evoke fear, however, one must tread judiciously. "If people are being scared without seeing a way out, it makes them dysfunctional and freeze," says Weber. "They will switch channels and watch Britney Spears instead."

And that leads to a second recommendation: People need to be offered a set of actions they can take to combat global warming. "In general, a good guide is: Where does most of our energy get used?" says Susanne C. Moser, co-editor of the 2007 anthology, Creating a Climate for Change. The top three categories of energy-consumption for individuals are transportation, home-energy use, and food consumption. Already, plenty of books and websites offer tips on how to reduce energy use in all these areas. Reports on global warming need to draw on these resources, so that people feel there is something concrete they can do about it.

Finally, beyond the many small energy-saving solutions people can take, combating global warming will require making people more aware of the large-scale lifestyle changes that will really make a difference. "I don't want to have to make a zillion little decisions," says Baruch Fischoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the former president of the Society for Risk Analysis. "I'd like to see people working out for me some alternative ways of organizing my life where it will really be a sustainable way to live."

Indeed, figuring out these big lifestyles changes, Fischoff suggests, is the practical work that now lies ahead for climate and social scientists.

As for ordinary Americans like myself, I believe that significant collective action on global warming will come from a very personal place-such as love for our kids, who will, after all, be among those most likely to experience its greatest consequences. But perhaps even more significantly, I'm finding hope in knowing that the drive to protect our children is another universal desire for which most of us are, in fact, hard-wired.

Reprinted from Greater Good, Vol. V, Issue 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 40-43. For more information, please visit Greater Good magazine.

How America Can Be a Superpower the World Respects

An interview with foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter by Jason Marsh.

"World's only superpower" -- that's the title bestowed on the United States for the last two decades. It has a nice ring to it, but what does it mean today?

"Measured by economic statistics and military might, our power is greater than ever," writes foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter in her recent book, The Idea That Is America. "But measured by the commonsense measure of whether we can get others to do what we want them to do, we have clearly lost ground since the Cold War."

For years, foreign policy experts like Slaughter, dean of Princeton University's eminent Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, have warned that our unrivaled wealth and military power are not enough to tackle the kinds of problems we face today, from terrorism to climate change to the widening gaps between rich and poor around the world.

"These are issues that require the cooperation of, if not all 191 nations, then a good many of them," Slaughter said. "And for that, you have to be able to mobilize people; you have to be able to inspire them. That means we have to have a set of ideas that will be deeply attractive to other countries and will convince other countries that we are actually pulling together to fight a common threat."

In The Idea That Is America, Slaughter identifies seven key principles -- liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith -- that she sees as central to America's identity. She describes how a U.S. foreign policy grounded in these principles could offer a new model of American power, one that inspires and mobilizes other nations to work with us.

The Idea That Is America has been endorsed by distinguished figures ranging from former Reagan secretary of state George Shultz to former Clinton secretary of state Madeline Albright (who called the book "brilliant ... deeply moving, exquisitely timed, authored by one of our country's leading scholars"). Slaughter herself has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state should the Democrats win the White House.

Slaughter recently spoke with me during a brief trip back to the U.S. from China, where she's on sabbatical for the year.

Jason Marsh: If you were advising the next American president, how would you recommend he or she act to restore America's moral and political standing in the world?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I would start with humility. In my view, we need to start by acknowledging that we have made some real errors -- that we were badly frightened after 9/11, and we overreacted in many ways. We're not alone as a nation in doing that; many nations respond that way. But we have to own up to that. We have to take responsibility for our actions and acknowledge our errors, and acknowledge that in many cases we actually should have been listening to other countries. That kind of humility is needed to give us enough room to start to do some very positive things.

There are four concrete things we need to do right away. The first is to close Guantanamo and declare that we will not engage in torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. We must go back to the standards that we have always set and we continue to set for our military. We must embrace them across the board.

Second, we must withdraw our troops from Iraq in a way that leaves Iraq as stable as possible, while building regional institutions at the same time. It cannot be just a unilateral withdrawal. Rather it must be a declared policy of, "We are now withdrawing our troops and working to make that a safe and stable withdrawal," rather than figuring out how to stay in.

Third, we need to work on leading a serious global effort to combat climate change. Our current nonchalant posture is probably the most important global symbol of how the United States effectively doesn't care that the decisions we make affect others. You can't be a leader if you're that irresponsible. We're going to have to ask other countries to make sacrifices, too, so we're going to have to start. And the fourth is to be really serious about nuclear nonproliferation, which means living up to our part of the bargain. It means cutting our nuclear weapons. In my view it means declaring that our ultimate aim is to go to zero, although it could take decades to get there.

JM: You talk about humility, but "humble superpower" seems like a contradiction in terms. I wonder if you could elaborate on how a humble foreign policy would differ from the Bush administration's? For instance, when would a humble superpower use force?

AMS: Well, first, you have to define humility. Humility doesn't mean you shouldn't be strong; it doesn't mean you shouldn't be bold; it doesn't mean you shouldn't be proud. The opposite of humility is hubris.

So the biggest changes would be, in making decisions, to genuinely consult and genuinely listen. Not just jump through diplomatic hoops, but genuinely listen to people who understand a particular region. We really need to be consulting with those powers and allowing them to lead in some cases, supporting them, and not always insisting that it's going to be done our way.

If you've got evidence that you are about to be attacked, you can act. That's consistent with the right of self-defense under the U.N. charter, under international law. The issue is: Can you act when a threat is not imminent, but you think it's building? And there, I think, humility says there are far too many questions to act unilaterally. That's exactly, in my view, where you want to have the value of multilateral deliberation, where you want a number of different opinions.

And in my view, that means you would either get UN authorization or you'd at least get authorization from a representative regional body. And if you can't convince another 10 to 15 nations who would be equally threatened that this threat is imminent and that force is really essential, then I don't think you should act. But it's not because of some abstract devotion to multilateral process. It's because multilateral process is a safeguard that you use precisely when you know that you may see something exactly black, but somebody else may see it exactly white, and you better hear that view.

JM: It's interesting to hear you describe power in these terms because it resonates with research covered by my co-editor Dacher Keltner in this issue of Greater Good. That research shows when people practice social intelligence, when they're sensitive to the needs of others and able to empathize with them, they are entrusted with more power and are actually able to wield that power over a longer term, and more successfully, than when they just try to lead by force and coercion.

AMS: Very interesting. That is consistent with the view of John Ikenberry, who is my co-author on the Princeton Project on National Security, that the secret of our success after WWII was that we were willing to constrain ourselves by creating and participating in institutions such as the United Nations. By doing so, we were not only strengthening ourselves by creating alliances against our adversaries. We were reassuring our allies that we would not dominate them -- that we would genuinely take their views seriously and that we would accept these constraints in return for their participating in these institutions with us. And the whole point there is that constraint is a source of power.

JM: What you're articulating seems to be social intelligence on a global scale. On the other hand, there's another body of research showing that once people have power, despite what research shows is the best way to wield it, people are often corrupted by it and abuse power in pursuit of their own self-interest. And I can't help but wonder whether that might also be the case in the international arena. In other words, perhaps the U.S. should use its power in this socially intelligent, humble way. But do we have any reason to believe that it actually can? Is there any historical precedent for this kind of political humility?

AMS: Well, it's a great question, and I think you can answer it on multiple levels. One, there's the basic learning curve on the personal level. In my own experience as dean, and I think many leaders will say this, when you first become a leader, there's this overwhelming sense that you have to prove your strength and your resolution. And what you're going to do is just declare something and impose it. And you're going to act quickly and resolutely and firmly. And virtually all effective leaders then realize, "No, actually moving more slowly and consulting more widely is far more likely to help you reach your objective." It will be slower, it may be moderated in different ways -- you're not going to get it exactly as you wanted -- but it will be legitimate, and it will last.

So if you think about that globally, part of the answer is that there's a learning curve, right? The United States came out of the Cold War, and in 1995, after 40 years as one of two superpowers, we were only one superpower. And it's not surprising that it went to our head in various ways. And then we were also, as I said, badly frightened after 9/11. That combination means it's not at all surprising that at some point we said, "We have all this power and we're going to use it for what we think is good." But the lessons of how disastrous that's been, I think, are quite plain to see.

The other thing I would say is this is the first time ever that you have had a democracy in this role. I write in my book that our democracy does not presume we are better than other people. On the contrary, it presumes that we are totally human, and like all humans, we are corruptible and we are weak. Unlike the British Empire or the Roman Empire or any other country that was once in this position, we are a country where when things go disastrously wrong, we have a system to kick that government out. That doesn't mean we're going to be great, just that we have real safeguards against the worst abuses.

And I think we will look back and see we've handled this period of being an unquestionable hyperpower quite badly, but that we then recovered and, first, recognized that the period of being a hyperpower was clearly limited. Because if you look 20 years down the road, you can see other powers-China, but also the EU-rising. You can see that the centers of power in the world are reconfiguring. Second, we'll see that the kinds of problems we faced were not susceptible to the unilateral use of our power, even for the period that we had it.

This has been a grievous learning curve. But I remain optimistic that we actually can come back.

JM: Looking ahead to the next administration and beyond, why are you optimistic that we can and will get back on this right path?

AMS: I am optimistic, although I'm not Pollyannaish. In other words, I really do think this is going to be a four-to-five year effort, because we really have eroded so much of what I think does make us strong.

But with the right administration, and the willingness to put in the work, not to have a quick fix, to accept constraints, and to really have a serious global agenda, not just a national agenda-I am convinced that we can do it, for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is the Churchillian argument about democracy: that we're the worst possible leader, but we're better than all the others. I don't see any other nations that can do this, and I think many nations in the world want leadership. I'm living in China this year, and the Chinese basically say, "We need you to be leading," at least for the next 20 years. After that, we'll see. So I think that's very important.

I'm also optimistic because the United States better represents the peoples of the world than any other nation. If we look at our own changing demographic face, I see a population that will be deeply connected to other countries in the world by blood and by continued travel. And I'm optimistic because I believe, in the end, that there are enough Americans who are plenty self-interested, but who also can't bear to see us so betray the things we say we stand for.

Reprinted from Greater Good magazine, Volume IV, Issue 3 (Winter 2007-08). For more information, please visit

Will Saying Thanks Make Us Happier?

Reprinted from Greater Good, Vol. IV, Issue 1 (Summer 2007), pp. 16-19. For more information, please visit Greater Good Magazine.

I have a confession: When I go to a bookstore, I like hanging out in the self-help section. I don't know if it's because I think I'll find a book that will solve all my problems, or if seeing all the books on problems I don't have makes me feel better about myself. But whatever it is, I keep going back.

On recent visits, I've noticed a trend: The market has been glutted by books promising the secrets to happiness. That might not seem new (isn't happiness the point of the entire section?), but these aren't touchy-feely self-help titles-they're books by scientific researchers, who claim to offer prescriptions based on rigorous empirical research. It's all part of the "positive psychology" movement that has spilled out of academic journals and into best-selling books, popular magazine articles, and even school curricula.

As I glanced through a few of these titles, two things quickly became clear. First, positive psychologists claim you can create your own happiness. Conventional wisdom has long held that each of us is simply born with a happiness "set point" (meaning that some people are constitutionally more likely to be happy than others). That's partially true-but according to positive psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ken Sheldon, research now suggests that up to 40 percent of our happiness might stem from intentional activities in which we choose to engage.

Second, in trying to explain which activities might actually help us cultivate happiness, positive psychology keeps returning to the same concept: gratitude. In study after study, researchers have found that if people actively try to become more grateful in their everyday lives, they're likely to become happier -- and healthier -- as well.

So how do positive psychologists recommend that you increase your level of gratitude-and, therefore, happiness? They endorse several research-tested exercises. These include keeping a "gratitude journal," where you record a running list of things for which you're grateful; making a conscious effort to "savor" all the beauty and pleasures in your daily life; and writing a "gratitude letter" to some important person in your life who you've never properly thanked.

These gratitude exercises all sounded pleasant enough, but would they work for me? While I'm not currently depressed, I'm very aware that depression runs in my family: I'm the only person-including the dog-who has not yet been on Prozac. So I decided to indulge in all three of these exercises over a six-week period, risking the possibility that I might become an insufferably happy and cheerful person.

I emailed University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough, a leading gratitude researcher, to ask what he thought I could expect as a result of my gratitude overdose.

"If you're not experiencing more happiness and satisfaction in your life after this six-week gratitude infusion," he wrote back, "I'll eat my hat!"

Getting grateful

My first step was to get a gratitude journal. Luckily, a year earlier my recently retired father had stumbled across a bookstore that sold "quotable journals"-blank books with inspiring quotes on their covers. My father, always a sucker for inspiration, sent me seven of them. I settled on one with a cover that said, in all caps, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." Given my experiment in manufactured happiness, this seemed appropriate.

Journal at my side, I decided to start by taking a happiness inventory (available, along with a bunch of other quizzes, at, the website run by positive psychology guru Martin Seligman). I scored a 3.58 out of 5, putting myself ahead of 77 percent of participants, but still leaving plenty of room for improvement-as evidenced by my first journal entry.

"It's been a somewhat depressing day," starts my gratitude journal. "Or, rather, week."

At first, it felt a little awkward to keep a journal specifically for gratitude -- I felt as if I should plaster my car in cheesy bumper stickers ("Happiness is") and call it a day. But even on that first downbeat afternoon, my journal did make me feel a little better about things. Listing things I was grateful for made me feel, well, grateful for them-and since I'd also decided to jot down moments each day that had made me happy (another positive psychology-endorsed exercise), I had a concrete list of cheerful experiences to look back on when I was feeling down. Thanks to my journal, I know that on January 18th I was happy because I'd exercised, had a good Chinese lesson, and spent 15 minutes dancing around my room to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." On January 30th, I was grateful for my perseverance, the Pacific Ocean, and the fact that I have really, really good cholesterol.

I've always kept a journal, but once my initial excitement about my new project had passed, my writing schedule felt a bit contrived. I often had to force myself to stay awake for a few minutes before bedtime so that I wouldn't miss an entry. But I quickly found that encouraging myself to focus on the good in my life instead of dwelling on the bad was helping me gain a bit of perspective on things. "The actions in my day-to-day life are actually quite pleasant," I wrote on January 21st, in a moment of insight. "It's anxieties that get me derailed."

It was also good to get in the habit of countering bad things in my day with reflections on the good. For example, on February 1st -- which I described as "having a lot going against it" -- I wrote that I "spent a bunch of the day cleaning my room and trying to get my new phone to work, went on fruitless errands, ripped out part of a sweater I was knitting, and when I emailed the pattern designer -- who goes by "Yarn Boy"-- to ask if he could help me figure out where I'd gone wrong, he sent me an email back telling me to 'take it to a yarn shop.' Thanks a lot, Yarn Ass." And yet the entry ends as follows: "But I did get my phone set up and cleaned my room a bit. Chinese went well. I got cute new barrettes. I worked out even though I didn't feel like it, then I savored the feel of my calf muscles."

That might not sound like much, but trust me: It's an improvement.

Despite my calf muscle appreciation, I wasn't exactly sure how to practice my "savoring" exercise, so I emailed Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University who teaches an immensely popular class called "Science of Well-Being and Character Strengths." Kashdan, who worked on the floor of the stock exchange until a late night revelation on a golf course made him realize he'd rather spend his life studying creativity and happiness, wrote back quickly.

"You can do something simple, such as stop and notice an instance of natural beauty, e.g., a sunrise, a flower, a bird singing, a couple gazing at each other," he suggested. "Or start keeping a journal of beautiful moments in which you write down each day the most beautiful things you saw and then return to it before you go to sleep."

Not wanting to start another journal, I instead tried to take more time to appreciate my surroundings. On an eight-mile run on a fire trail, I stopped at a bench on top of a steep hill to give myself a chance to "savor." I felt a bit like I was cheating-after all, the real reason I'd stopped was that if I hadn't, I'd have thrown up-but as my heart rate slowed I allowed myself to appreciate what was around me: the view of San Francisco, the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, and the sounds of the birds. It made me feel nice, and since it didn't involve jogging, I continued to savor for 20 minutes before forcing myself back on the trail.

Surprisingly, that exercise made me want to try to savor other small things in my day: watching a mechanic on break from work crack open a beautiful ripe pomegranate, noticing rays of light outside my kitchen window -- even enjoying the feeling, weird as it might sound, of brushing my own hair. These were all small, private moments, but consciously trying to find things to savor was kind of like looking for manhole covers on the street: Once you start paying attention, they're everywhere.

For my gratitude letter, I decided to write one to my grandmother back in New York for her 84th birthday. It took me three weeks to build up the emotional energy to do it (something about putting all that emotion down on paper made me procrastinate), and, as expected, as soon as I started writing, I began to cry.

"I remember you singing me to sleep when I was little," I wrote. "And helping me with my math homework and quizzing me on spelling while I tried to do handstands in the living room, and picking me up from the school bus, and coming into school for grandparents' day-I was always so proud to have you there." I told her how lucky I felt to have her in my life, how much I respected her for having raised my mother on her own, and how much it meant to me that we were so close. By the time I finished writing the letter, I was exhausted-and when I called to read it to her (since she lives across the country, I couldn't do it in person), we both ended up in tears.

Negativity bias

Halfway through my experiment, I was running into problems. I had been trying to appreciate happy moments in my life, but that didn't stop me from getting into a verbal fight with a mechanic, who became so angry that he threatened to have me arrested. I had delivered my gratitude letter to my grandmother, which did make us both happy, but also made her think I was writing her eulogy; she told me, pointedly, that she wasn't planning to die yet. And when I tried to savor a beautiful afternoon by taking a hike along the coast with my boyfriend, we got poison oak.

What's more, I noticed that when I was particularly stressed or angry or feeling down, I didn't want to reflect on things I was happy or grateful for. During those moments, thinking about reasons my life was good just made me more anxious. I decided to call Julie Norem, professor and chair of the psychology department at Wellesley College, for reassurance. She told me my reaction made sense.

"If you're trying to be grateful all the time but are in a really sucky situation," she said, "then you set yourself up for feeling like things are even worse than they were before because you didn't get cured by this gratitude thing that was supposed to make you happy."

Granted, Norem has her biases. She's the author of a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking and believes that for some people, whom she calls defensive pessimists, trying to be constantly positive and optimistic can lead to more stress. But apparently I'm biased, too, because as I read through her website, I could feel myself identifying with it.

"Defensive pessimists lower their expectations to help prepare themselves for the worst," says her website. "Then they mentally play through all the bad things that can happen. Though it sounds like it might be depressing, defensive pessimism actually helps anxious people focus away from their emotions so they can plan and act effectively."

Intrigued, I took the quiz on Norem's website titled "Are you a defensive pessimist?" and scored exactly in the middle between optimism and defensive pessimism-which makes sense, given the fact that I do try to be positive about things, but use negativity to cope. It goes along with a saying I learned from my grandmother: "Hope for the best; expect the worst."

Perhaps ironically, thinking about pessimism made me feel better, especially when University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson admitted to me that even positive psychologists like himself are not always brimming with joy. "I'm not a Pollyanna," he said when I called to ask how positive psychology had affected his life. "And obviously, someone who's unrelentingly cheerful can be a pain in the ass."

Happy meal

But how about unrelenting gratitude? To celebrate finishing my experiment-not to mention filling up my journal -- I took my boyfriend out for dinner at a restaurant here in Berkeley called Café Gratitude. It's a place that is anathema to my cynical New York roots: cheery waitresses who call everyone "darling," posters on the walls that ask questions like, "Can you surrender to how beautiful you are?" and, worst of all, a menu of organic, vegan dishes, all named with life-affirming sentences. For example, saying to your server, "I am fabulous" means that you would like some lasagna. "I am fun" indicates that you want some toast. Unfortunately, there is no organic, vegan interpretation of "I am about to vomit."

My boyfriend and I settled on being generous, fulfilled, and accepting (guacamole, a large café salad, and a bowl of rice), and in honor of my experiment, I insisted on ordering the "I am thankful" (Thai coconut soup, served cold). To offset the restaurant's unrelenting cheer, we both ordered alcohol (luckily, even in Café Gratitude, a beer is just a beer).

While nibbling on carrot flaxseed crackers ("I am relishing"), we talked about the past six weeks. McCullough doesn't need to eat his hat-I definitely had experienced moments of feeling happier and more consciously grateful as a result of the exercises, and by the end of my experiment, my happiness index had gone up to 3.92. But I also found that there are times when I need to allow myself to feel bad without fighting against my negative emotions. And my cynical side continues to dream of opening a rival restaurant next door called the Cantankerous Café, with menu items like "I am depressed" and "I am resentful."

My biggest question was how long these exercises' effects would last.

"Sometimes positive psychologists sound like we're trying to sell miracles to people. There are no miracles. ... There are no long-term quick fixes for happiness," said Peterson, when I asked him how I could maintain my happiness boost. "So if you become a more grateful person and you add those exercises to your repertoire, you'll be different six months or a year from now. But if you say okay, I'm done with the story and I'm going back to the way I was, it'll just have been a six-week high. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not going to permanently change you."

Perhaps that's why, when I got home from dinner, I went straight to my bookcase where I keep stuff my dad has sent me and picked out another journal.

An Endless Cycle of Good Deeds

Here's a puzzle: Why do we care when a stranger does a good deed for a stranger? Most theories in the social sciences say that people's actions and feelings are motivated by self-interest. So why are we sometimes moved to tears by the good deeds or heroic actions of others? I believe we cannot have a full understanding of human morality until we can explain why and how human beings are so powerfully affected by the sight of a stranger helping another stranger.

For the past several years, I have studied this feeling, which I call "elevation." I have defined elevation as a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.

Elevation is widely known across cultures and historical eras. You probably recognize it yourself. But for some reason no psychologist has studied it empirically. Instead, psychologists have focused most of their energies on the negative moral emotions, especially guilt and anger. Psychologists have thought about morality primarily as a system of rules that prevents people from hurting each other and taking their possessions.

But I believe that morality is much richer and more balanced. Most people don't want to rape, steal, and kill. What they really want is to live in a moral community where people treat each other well, and in which they can satisfy their needs for love, productive work, and a sense of belonging to groups of which they are proud. We get a visceral sense that we do not have such a moral world when we see people behave in petty, cruel, or selfish ways.

But when we see a stranger do a simple act of kindness for another stranger, it gives us a thrilling sense that maybe we do live in such a world. The fact that we can be so responsive to the good deeds of others, even when we do not benefit directly, is a very important facet of human nature. Yes, people can be terribly cruel, and we must continue our study of the conditions that lead to racism, violence, and other social ills. But there is a brighter side to human nature, too, and psychology ought to look more closely at it.

Beyond Disgust

I started examining elevation only after years of studying its opposite: disgust. It makes good evolutionary sense that human beings should have an emotion that makes us feel repulsion toward rotten food, excrement, dead bodies, and other physical objects that are full of dangerous bacteria and parasites. It also makes sense that disgust should make us hypersensitive to contagion -- that is, we feel disgust toward anything that touched something that we find disgusting.

But when my colleagues and I actually asked people in several countries to list the things they thought were disgusting, we repeatedly found that most people mentioned social offenses, such as hypocrisy, racism, cruelty, and betrayal. How on earth did a food-based and very corporeal emotion become a social and moral emotion? The short version of our attempt at an answer is that while disgust may motivate people to distance themselves from physical threats, it is well-suited for dealing with social threats as well. When we find social actions disgusting, they indicate to us that the person who committed them is in some way morally defective.

In this light, we seem to place human actions on a vertical dimension that runs from our conception of absolute good (God) above, to absolute evil (the Devil) below. This vertical dimension is found in many cultures -- for example, in Hindu and Buddhist ideas that people are reincarnated at higher or lower levels depending on their moral behavior in this life.

Social disgust can then be understood as the emotional reaction people have to witnessing others moving "down," or exhibiting their lower, baser, less God-like nature. Human beings feel revolted by moral depravity, and this revulsion is akin to the revulsion they feel toward rotten food and cockroaches. In this way, disgust helps us form groups, reject deviants, and build a moral community.

I thought about the social nature of disgust in this way for years, and about what exactly it means when someone moves "down" on the vertical dimension from good to evil. But then, one day in 1997, I looked up. I had never thought about what emotion we feel when we see someone move higher on the vertical dimension, acting in an honorable or saintly way.

But once I began to investigate, I saw a whole new set of emotional responses that were triggered by virtuous, pure, or super-human behavior. I have called this emotion "elevation" because seeing other people rise on the vertical dimension, from evil to goodness, seems to make people feel higher on it themselves.

Once I began looking for elevation, I found it easily. I saw that most people recognize descriptions of it, and the popular press and Oprah Winfrey talk about it (as being touched, moved, or inspired). Yet research psychologists had almost nothing to say about it.

I have now done several experiments on elevation, and here is what I have learned.

Studying Elevation

First, my students and I asked people to write in detail about five kinds of situations that we thought seemed likely to produce different kinds of positive emotions, including happiness and elevation. We then asked specific questions about their bodily changes, thoughts, actions, and motivations in these different situations. In the question that was supposed to prompt people to share their experiences of elevation, we asked participants to write about "a specific time when you saw a manifestation of humanity's 'higher' or 'better' nature." The stories told in response were often moving and beautiful.

The most commonly cited circumstances that caused elevation involved seeing someone else give help or aid to a person who was poor or sick, or stranded in a difficult situation. A particularly powerful and detailed case captures the flavor of these situations:

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