The Contagious Nature of Virtue

Sandye, an old high school friend of mine, recently shared an uplifting true story on Facebook.  She was waiting on line for the food service (pizza, hot dogs, etc.) at Costco with her husband and daughter.  After waiting what seemed like forever, they finally got up to the front of the line and ordered their food.  The food was all prepared for them, but they then learned that the window did not accept credit cards, and they did not have enough cash on hand to pay for their lunch.  Dejected and disappointed, they walked away from the window with empty hands and empty stomachs.

As they were walking out to the parking lot, a man came running after them with all of their food.  It was the man behind them in line, who had paid for their lunch and ran after them to deliver it.  As you might imagine, Sandye and her family were blown away by this gesture of kindness by a complete stranger.  Her posting on facebook generated lots of comments and “likes” as her entire circle of friends was uplifted by this unsolicited act of altruism.

Psychologists call this uplifting feeling we get from witnessing an act of virtue “moral elevation” (see research by Jonathan Haidt.) A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “elevationism” as the opposite of terrorism and a lot of people didn’t get my use of the word elevation.  Elevation is usually defined as increasing in height, altitude or grandeur.  But here is the definition (from Psychlopedia) for “moral elevation”:

Moral elevation is a specific emotion or state that individuals sometimes experience after they witness or hear about a virtuous act–an act in which someone showed unexpected compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and altruism. After individuals experience this state, they become more altruistic and helpful.

There is a great video from Central Avenue Church that shows how virtuous acts can spread through this feeling of elevation.  Those who see or hear a story of kindness and generosity are more likely to practice kindness themselves. 

In the case of the Costco story, it is easy to see the ripple effect of this one kind act.  As of this writing, 18 of Sandye’s friends had “liked” the story and 12 had commented on it.  Several of them made reference to the movie “Pay It Forward” where a child comes up with a plan to improve the world by doing good deeds and then asking people to “pay it forward” to three strangers.  (In fact, Sandye’s husband had been practicing random acts of kindness and so it seemed in a way like good karma coming back around to him.)  Several commenters sounded inspired to initiate their own random acts of kindness.

Beyond Facebook, I’m sure Sandye, her husband and her daughter have all told this story to other people, and some of those people have told people.  And I’m writing about it on my blog.  And you’re reading it.  And some of you will tell others, and some will be inspired to think about your own random acts of kindness.  And so it spreads.

I think it’s important to note that the Costco good Samaritan could hardly be classified as a hero.  I mean he did not jump in front of a bus to save a child, or load up his shopping cart at Costco and create care packages to ship to Somalian refugees (well, maybe he did that later :-).)  He just bought some pizza and hot dogs for a family in a moment of need.

This is a part of the beauty of the story.  It’s a simple gesture, and one any of us could do on any given day.  Heroism requires an incredible injustice to overcome.  Altruism is an easier target to reach. 

And it may be that small gestures are more than enough.  Psychologist Todd Kashdan’s recent Huffington Post article cites research showing how a simple smile and a nod from a stranger can have an impact on people’s feelings of happiness and connectedness.

The UK based happiness think tank “Action for Happiness,” which encourages doing good as a pathway to happiness, proposes modest examples of altruism (“the next time you make a cup of tea, why not make a pot and see who else wants some?” –from the “Doing Good Feels Good” video on their home page.)

Now imagine how the do-gooder from Costco feels.  He was with his father at the time (who was beaming with pride.)  They probably left feeling just as uplifted as Sandye and her family.  And how many people have they told?

Doing good feels good, and the ripple effects make a better world that benefits us all.  If this article inspires you to try a random act of kindness, post a comment and let me know how it makes you feel, even if it’s just a friendly nod, a pot of tea, or a slice of pizza at Costco.    

References and Recommended Reading:

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  Basic Books.

Keltner, D. (2009).  Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.  W. W. Norton & Company.

Post, S., & Niemark, J. (2008). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. Three Rivers Press.

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5 Responses to The Contagious Nature of Virtue

  1. Mary Jane Boholst September 27, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Thanks for sharing this story. I have already shared it with my friends on Facebook and will be looking to pass on that warm and fuzzy feeling to others later today.
    A positive story to counteract the negative media that is so prevalent these days.
    Take care,

  2. Daniel Pallordet September 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Thank you for this! I would very much like to do kind things for others, but… the problem is that my parents were so mean and aggressive that I didn’t learn kindness for them. I don’t know how to be kind. Thank you for providing a link that gives practical tips. I will read that website in more detail next weekend.

  3. Daniel Pallordet September 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Correction to my previous post: I meant I didn’t learn kindness FROM my parents.

  4. Lori Hutchinson September 30, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    A couple of times the people in front of us car wise on the Golden Gate bridge have paid our car toll and we have done the same act for the people in the car following us. Always a feel good!

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