On July 4 Don Plunkett was one among the pack of 55,000 runners who set off to run the annual 6.2 mile run known as the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. For those readers who have not lived here in the deep South, the weather in the middle of the summer is especially hot and humid. He had just crested the hill at the 5 mile point when he collapsed. The 58 eight year old man was lying motionless in the roadway, not breathing. Carla Chelko, a physical education instructor, stopped immediately, pried his mouth open and started rescue breathing. Right away two more runners stopped, both of them doctors. Dr. Lee Davis, an anesthesiologist, began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Dr. John Gott, a cardiothoracic surgeon, performed chest compressions. Next on the scene was a paramedic, Arthur Kaplan, who rushed over with life-saving gear. With supplies from Kaplan, the four continued to work on Plunkett, but to no avail. He was turning blue. Christy Wheeler, another paramedic, arrived within three minutes with a defibrillator. The first two shocks didn’t get a response from Plunkett’s heart which had stopped. She cranked it up to the maximum setting. The third shock resulted in a heartbeat. The crowd cheered. Later that day Dr. David Vega and Dr. Dan Winston performed Plunkett’s triple bypass surgery at a nearby hospital. Plunkett not only survived but came through with no permanent damage to his heart. It was an amazing coming together of caring and resources, like links in a chain.
Behavioral scientists refer to this kind of event as an act of “moral beauty.” Studies show that when people witness others being kind to strangers they experience an emotion of elevation. People have described it as a warm, uplifting feeling of expansion or floating, typically felt in the chest,. We feel a welling up of emotion like a wave passing through us. Scientists do not know yet how and why the human brain processes this information and sends out these signals to the body.
Jonathan Haidt conducted research in which he asked people to write about “a specific time when you saw a manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.” The participants described themselves as surprised, stunned, and emotinally moved. The feeling of elevation made them want to do something for others and to become a better person They described a sense of love for others and a desire to be with others.
I first read about elevation in 2001 and have continued to find it a compelling subject. Since then many tragedies have occurred all over the world–the 911 attack on the World Trace Center, the tsunami in Indonesia, earthquakes in Mexico, terrorist attacks in Europe, the school shootings in Connecticut, the tornados which hit Oklahoma only recently. While devastating, all these events are also stories of courage, sacrifice, heroism, and determination.
For many years scientists have theorized that altruism is genetically wired into human beings. We give up personal interest to help others because, in doing so, we insure the survival of the family, the clan, and the community. Is elevation also built into our DNA? Did it evolve to help us overcome grief, to lift us up to our higher, better nature?
For today, onsider acts of moral beauty which you have witnessed–people stopping to help a driver who is stranded, a stranger stopping to return a lost or injured dog. Or consider one you have heard about–the firemen who went into the World Trade Center, the teacher who put her body over the children in the closet of the classroom during the school shooting, the man who jumped onto the subway tracks to retrieve another man who had fallen there. Be lifted up by it.
APA. 2001, July/August. Templeton Positive Psychology Prize goes to Jonathan Haidt of U. of Virginia. APA Monitor on Psychology, Hiskey, M.
“God Tied People Together.” July 3, 2002. Atlanta Journal Constitution. C1, C2.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2000, March 7. The Positive Emotion of Elevation. Prevention and Treatment.
Photo from the AJC Peachtree Road Race page on Facebook.