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The Heart of It: Love and Lent, Moral Elevation, and Oxytocin

Updated: Feb 9

The true grandeur of humanity is in moral elevation.... Charles Sumner, American statesman

Some of you sent me beautiful stories related to “soul clapping"... other souls clapping for your soul or your soul clapping for another – seeing the good in each other (in response to the previous blog).

And what were the effects on you of sharing those stories? And on me reading them?  One of you volunteered to me that you cried thinking through your journey and those who clapped for your soul.  And that’s exactly what I did when I read some of your stories…teared up...and my soul smiled in response.

What’s that all about?  Moral elevation.  Moral elevation was first brought to researchers’ attention by a guy named Jonathan Haidt about 24 years ago.  I have read several of his articles and books.  I love what he studies and how he writes about it. 

Anyway, Haidt says that this emotion, moral elevation, happens when we somehow witness the good and admirable deeds of others.  It’s experienced as warmth in the chest, feeling uplifted and inspired, and having a sense of optimism about humanity and a motivation to behave better – be more generous, kinder, more grateful.

After we hear about what moral elevation is, we know the emotion surely has been around for hundreds of years. Think of those people whose acts still lifts us in stories like those about Jesus or Buddha or Gandhi or Tutu or Martin Luther King, Jr. (and you know you cried watching Braveheart. One person told me she cried just looking at pictures of Mother Teresa).  It elevates me just to consider that we humans are constructed to respond beautifully - nobly, by seeing or hearing about the good deeds of others.

It’s not possible for me tell you in a few pages all the beneficial outcomes associated with moral elevation.  But there’s one that is powerful and relatively new to science.  As we are in the season of Lent and Love, it seems appropriate to mention it. It’s kinda hard to believe, if you want me to send you the specific research, let me know. First, moral elevation makes us want to be better people, that's correct; and it also actually increases our helping. And a bunch of other social things like makes us less materialistic, but here’s a bit of what happens physiologically (I’ll leave for another day the research around optimizing immune function and cortisol chemistry).

The fascinating learning for me is that in a state of moral elevation we release oxytocin. So what?  Oxytocin repairs heart cells it seems.  For those of you who want to know how several mechanisms have been suggested.  Oxytocin has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties.  And here’s a really wild one – oxytocin has been found to promote the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis)!  

Oxytocin can also influence the activity of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and rhythm. By modulating sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, oxytocin may help maintain cardiovascular homeostasis and support heart function.

Warning. I’m about to share a bit of medspeak but I think we can get an idea of what is being said. Probably all of us have heard about oxytocin receptors in the brain, but it seems that oxytocin receptors are also present in the heart. “These receptors are found on cardiomyocytes, the muscle cells of the heart, as well as on fibroblasts, endothelial cells, and immune cells within the heart tissue.

Studies have shown that oxytocin can exert direct effects on the heart by binding to these receptors. Oxytocin receptors on cardiomyocytes have been linked to various physiological processes, including modulation of heart rate, contractility, and cardiac remodeling. Additionally, oxytocin receptors on other cell types within the heart, such as fibroblasts and endothelial cells, may play a role in cardiac repair and regeneration.”

Whew.  Enough of that. Moral elevation does a lot of good stuff for us which includes releasing oxytocin... that’s the bottom line I’m sharing in those paragraphs.

And we know that we get this uplift, oxytocin release, when we see people doing virtuous things.  Like…I saw a woman (Angie Pipkin) a few minutes ago prepping food to cook for 80 to 100 community members tonight.  I know she is in tremendous pain with spinal stenosis (scheduled for surgery), but here she is with a smile on her face working through that pain for hours just to cook for the community. 

And stories of people like Margie Kerr (who cannot stand to see her name in print nor her picture....she'll probably be grimacing when she reads this...even more so when she sees this grainy photo I swiped off the internet) who started in 1992 something now called “Make A Difference Day.”  I cannot even begin to tell you the thousands of dollars, the thousands of good deeds which have been done because Margie has a mantra, “see a need, do a good deed.” And she has at her fingertips thousands of ways you and I can use whatever talents and resources we have to truly make a difference. Margie elevates me - lifts me up, makes me want to be a better person.

Today, I’m thinking not only about those people, but also those activities that lift us up, that release oxytocin.  It’s stuff like expressing gratitude, engaging in acts of kindness ourselves (as well as watching others, as previously mentioned – we get a big hit of oxytocin even watching videos of Mother Teresa in action), hugging/kissing/cuddling/holding hands. And I’m not sure why but also physical activity…especially moderate aerobics like jogging or walking can release oxytocin and uplift us.

As we move more toward celebrating the season of love and lent…which I now am thinking of as a season of moral elevation (I know a minister who was able to move both conservatives and liberals, literalists and progressives to tears, into community, and into action with moral elevation stories with no "we are all sinners" stories at all), it wouldn’t be a bad idea to think about who and what elevates us. 

Gene Sharratt shared a story which lifted me and nudged me to be better/do better (my soul was clapping for this man’s soul). Served up some moral elevation with a side of oxytocin (BTW, Gene regularly speaks to big crowds of several hundred people. He never fails to get a standing ovation. And I think I know why. He always ends with a morally elevating story. It's our souls clapping for his. Or it's what I am going to call the Namaste Effect - the good in us sees/responds to the good in others - or to go back to the terminology used a couple of blogs ago, the "better angels" in us recognize and celebrate the better angels in others).

The story he shared is about a man named Burt Mann, a centenarian, who died last month. Burt was well-known for his daily walks. “He walked through town every day spreading joy and love to others.” As he neared his 101st birthday evidently everyone was asking him what he wanted or needed.   He told a friend, “….I know my time is getting near, I can’t go on forever.  But in the meantime, [I want to] just keep that love in my heart for fellow man and I’ll be a happy camper, always.”

I am basking in the way we are made…to be morally elevated by the best in others. To release oxytocin when we hug and do deeds. And how all that heals and helps us.

How might we journey together during these special days of love and lent to the Good Life by marveling at the intricacy of moral elevation while noticing it, catching it, savoring it, and acting on it?

(I would love to hear about your experiences of moral elevation)





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