Is That Me, Excited about My Country?
On the night of the presidential election, I lounged and chatted on a cozy couch with friends in a Philadelphia apartment near the University of Pennsylvania as the state-by-state results were reported. We pondered the implications of the Harold Zullow and Martin Seligman study that linked winning presidential elections to optimism. Within moments of the official announcement of Barack Obama’s victory, the street outside – a main campus artery – was overcome by a crowd of supporters. There were hundreds of people joyfully and peacefully making their way down the middle of the road. We immediately gave up watching the television and stood by the window to take in the spectacle. “Where were they all going, and from where did they all come?” we pondered. We had no idea, but just watching them, hugging as they went, and listening to the buzz of energy audible through the closed window sent chills down my spine.
An hour or so later, I had to feed the meter where my car was parked, so I headed to street level, curious to get closer to the action. The crowds had thinned a bit, but as I walked down the sidewalk, two young men whom I assume were local college students, ran down the street carrying a huge American flag over their heads. It was the kind of sight one would expect to see at an animated World Cup match featuring fan-favorite South American super-teams, not here in the United States and never for something so dull as an election. The best part was that they did not seem to be celebrating a victory over something or someone, but rather an unadulterated pride in their country. They smiled unabashedly to everyone they passed, and I noticed another young woman watching them, who then looked at me and smiled. I felt a sudden rush of feeling connected and warm to everyone around me. These flag-bearing students were creating a wave of positive emotions that spread quickly among the nearby pedestrians. It is an image I will never forget.
I want to be clear: this was not an Obama thing, and this was not a McCain thing. This was a human thing. And it is a phenomenon that should be of great interest to positive psychology. Although one can assume most of the people experiencing joy that night had voted on the Democratic ticket earlier that day, the experience I had on the streets of Philadelphia had very little to do with party platforms and candidate preferences. There was simply an air of happiness and it spread like wildfire among people, and did so intensely. Barbara Frederickson recently wrote an op-ed relating the post-election emotional highs to her Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions, but I think there was more involved that night than positive emotions. There was a profound sense of human connection. But what does positive psychology have to say about such moments of subjectively meaningful human connection?
What is the Human Connection?
In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman originally divided positive psychology into the study of three distinct domains: positive emotion, engagement or flow, and meaning. He defines the third domain, meaning, as a connection to something larger than the self, which encompasses many types of self-transcendence but certainly includes moments of deep human connection. In an attempt to describe the overly social tendencies of humans, Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis likens human groups in our evolutionary history to hives, where strong interpersonal bonds and commitment to other people allowed us to survive trying adversity. In fact, there exists an entire sub-theory of evolution known as multi-level selection theory that claims human evolution operated not only on the traditional Darwinian level of individual fitness but also on the level of group fitness. According to these theorists, human groups that possessed traits allowing them to work and bond together more than others would outlast groups lacking those traits (see David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone).
As an example, let’s consider two primal human tribes living on nearby plains in northern Africa. We’ll call them the Jabi and the Kulu. The Jabi tribe has consistently developed individuals with extraordinary hunting expertise by taking young boys out to hunt for long excursions at an early age. The Kulu tribe, on the other hand, spends less time training their boys to hunt but devotes more time to building community bonds of love, affection, and loyalty. The Jabi consists of more evolutionarily-advantaged individuals, who typically outlast less skilled individuals like the Kulu in traditional evolutionary models. Imagine, however, that the plains undergo a serious drought and the safety of each tribe is jeopardized by a sudden fire. Each tribe has one member who had been out retrieving water by the river and returns to find his tribesman encircled by flames. These tribesman have an opportunity to put their lives at serious risk to rescue all the others. The Kulu tribesman, having developed stronger bonds for his clan, is more likely to take the risk and rescue his tribe, even if it means risking his own life. Modern humans evolved from tribes that increasingly resembled the Kulu.
Emotions Synchronized and a Greater Community
In our evolutionary history, many mechanisms have supported the development of strong group bonding. McGill professor Daniel Levitin recently published a book about the evolutionary importance of music and dance in shaping the social human brain, in which he describes how inclusive and participatory music was in our developmental history. Ancient tribes training for battle against rivals created bonds similar to those of modern-day militaries. Describing his emotions during synchronized marching drills with hundreds of other recruits in the US Army’s basic training, William McNeill states:
“A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual” (p. 2, 1995).
Artistic expression, storytelling, and even religion—according to some theorists—all developed to encourage the strength of hive emotion bonds between people.
In modern society, we’ve come a long way from our tribal ancestors. Segways. iPhones. DVR. We can only imagine what’s next. But for all the ways that technology and our futuristic mores are connecting us with others, we’re also becoming a society of individuals. We can pass hundreds of people on our way to work and acknowledge none of them. We praise those who rise above the pack to achieve greatness, even if it is lonely at the top. And we often focus much more on our slight individual differences than our vast interpersonal commonalities. We have to go out of our way to connect with others and find meaning. The tragic events of September 11th brought us together for a while as we mourned together, but it was short-lived and the negative tone was far from ideal. It’s one of the reasons people volunteer for many months to partake in a political campaign in which they believe. The feeling of being a part of a greater community, of something larger than oneself, is irresistible. We thirst for it. It’s part of our very nature.
Amidst the economy, the wars, and the environment, I believe the continual growth of meaningful human connections is one of the biggest challenges we currently face. And don’t expect it to be resolved in Washington. This is a grassroots campaign that will take place on your sidewalk, one genuine smile at a time.
A few days after the election, I called my mom. In addition to our typical talking points (Yes, mom, I’ll be driving home for Thanksgiving. Yes, I’ll watch out for all the crazy folks on the road…), we discussed the implications of an Obama-run White House and the significance that this election will have in history. She had her share of stories of friends from election night and the following morning. Some stories revolved around disappointment, but many followed the uplifting theme of human connection. I began to describe to her the flag bearers I saw in Philadelphia the previous night and the feelings that it evoked in me, and I began to cry. Because not only had I experienced a great moment of human connection the night before, but by sharing the story I was creating another one at that very instant with my mom, who I knew understood. For a moment we snapped out of our traditional mother-son roles and became complete equals, recognizing each other’s hopes and vulnerabilities, and sharing our emotional selves freely. I had never been prouder to be both an American and a son. It was human connection at its greatest.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Levitin, D. J. (2008). The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. New York: Dutton.
McNeill, W. H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York: Delacorte Press.
Zullow, H., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Pessimistic rumination predicts defeat of presidential candidates, 1900 to 1984. Psychological Inquiry, 1, 52-61.