A recent article on the CNN website caught my eye. No, it wasn’t about the crazy state of the world or of American politics. It was an article by Daniel Berke, the CNN religion editor, “Seeing the Pope help strangers made me tear up. Later I learned why.”1 The author described feeling emotionally overwhelmed and moved to tears, in a state of intense positive emotion, on watching the moment when, as Pope Francis was ministering to a group of strangers, a young boy rose from his chair and gave the Pope a hug.
Questioning the origins of this response led the author to ask others about their response to the same, and similar, events. He found others had the same feelings, often accompanied by a burst of goodwill and what he called “benevolence.” But he wasn’t satisfied and decided to do more research. Because I thought this issue has importance for our clinical work, I kept reading, and I hope you will too.
Burke discovered that Thomas Jefferson had described this emotional state in his writings: “When any… act of charity or of gratitude is presented to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty or feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable or grateful acts also.” Burke goes on to say that Jefferson asserted that observing good deeds “can ‘elevate’ our bodies and minds, opening our chests and hearts.” This description parallels an aspect of what Jewish theologians described early in the first millennium of the states that emerge when fulfilling one of God’s most important precepts, tikkun olam, translated as “healing the world.”
Jefferson believed there were “four major components of the emotion: a triggering event (you witness moral beauty) a physical sensation (your chest dilates, a motivation (you want to help others) and an emotional feeling (you are uplifted and optimistic).” This 200-year-old definition is essentially the description in modern usage from social psychologists of the emotional state Jefferson called “elevation.”
Burke refers to the fact that UCLA anthropologist, Alan Page Fiske, uses a more ancient language, Sanskrit, when he describes this feeling as Kama Muta. No, I didn’t misspell this and mean Kama Sutra. To Fiske, “the closest we can come to the meaning of kama muta in English are words such as moved, touched, stirred, or smitten.”
1. Burke D. Seeing the Pope help strangers made me tear up. Later I learned why. CNN. April 7, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/06/europe/pope-elevation/index.html. Accessed April 12, 2018.
2. Kama Muta Lab. Research on Being Moved and Touched. http://kamamutalab.org/. Accessed April 12, 2018.
3. Wikipedia. Kama. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kama. Accessed April 12, 2018.
4. Alarcón R. Positive Psychiatry: An Interview With Dilip V. Jeste, MD. Psychiatric Times. February 2016;33:1, 5–7.