He was known as “Secret Santa,” a mysterious white-haired man wearing a red shirt and cap who would hand a stranger in need a wad of cash and make a speedy get-away. He suddenly appeared to dispense his largesse in cities across the country around holiday season, not to be seen again.
Secret Santa started his mission in December 1979 with a gift of $5 to a waitress in a drive-in who was wearing a too-thin jacket on a wintry day. Since then he has traversed the country every holiday season in search of people in need, like the widow of a heroic firefighter, or a mother stranded with her children in a bus station. He traveled through the streets of New York City in 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, handing out cash to those in dire straights, and then making his hallmark quick exit.
It’s a truism that the sight of one stranger helping another in the out-of-the-blue fashion of Secret Santa can move people to tears. Exactly why that might be so has been the subject of study by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He uses the term “elevation” for the warm feeling people get when they hear about or witness unexpected acts of human goodness. His conclusion: We are wired to be inspired.
People report the stirrings of elevation not just on seeing spontaneous acts of compassion, but those of courage or tolerance as well. Acts of altruism have a special psychological potency for most people, moving or even thrilling them, Haidt finds. While seeing someone help the sick or poor can trigger elevation, so can simple thoughtfulness. In Japan, for instance, the word for being moved in this way is “kandou;” in a study there someone reported having this feeling on witnessing a tough-looking yakuza offer his seat to an elderly man on a crowded train.
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- Jonathan D. Haidt and Corey L. M. Keyes, 2003, Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
- Hastings, Paul D. et al., 2000, “The development of concern for others in children with behavior problems,” Developmental Psychology, 36, 531-546.
- The Toronto emotional literacy program that brings babies and mothers into classrooms:
- To learn more about programs in social/emotional learning: www.casel.org