Communitas is a ritual-building process that inspires and revitalizes while reaffirming relationships within a community, state University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. According to Anthropologist Victor Turner, building communitas is an essential step to activating a community to healthy family functioning, healthy child development, and other dimensions of well-being. It also creates positive emotion, which according to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and mathematician Marcial Losada, builds upward spirals for individuals and groups.
Here is an example of some of the work I’ve done with my own family as an action researcher to build communitas and expand positive emotion. As we approach Passover and Easter, perhaps you will consider the power you have at building new positive traditions within the culture of your own networks. I call this Social-Emotional Leadership, which begins with your decision to stand up for the well-being of those you love.
Ho Hum Holiday
I have had the good fortune of being born into a large, Italian family, for which I am utterly and completely grateful. With aunts, uncles, and cousins, we are thirty members strong. Traditionally, we see each other at holidays, which are always about feasting and merriment; the events are orchestrated around the plethora of food and the drink. The men of the family typically flock to the television to watch the sporting events du jour; others of us less interested in sports stay in the living room to eat and imbibe or to kibitz about the food and drink. My siblings and cousins agreed: this tradition was feeling old.
I realized the need for Social-Emotional Leadership within my own network two years ago when I saw one of the youngest members of our clan exhibiting some troubling behaviors on Easter. This young boy joined the men in the family room in a friendly betting pool that my Uncle Charlie, a patriarch of our family, organized in good fun for the baseball game. But as this young boy joined in, I noticed his physical and emotional responses to first thinking he was winning and then, through a sudden turn of events in the game, thinking he was losing these seemingly “friendly” bets. His emotional and physical reactions were quite bothersome to me; I saw him embody real excitement and then real rage almost within the same moment.
Most bothersome was that we allowed his emotional roller coaster to continue without intervention. In fact, none of the other adults seemed at all fazed by his reactions as if a pink elephant were right there in the family room and we were all navigating around it, or worse, not even noticing it at all.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
But when I stood back to observe, I realized that the behaviors the boy was exhibiting were very much in line with what has been modeled for him by me and other members of our network. Compulsive behaviors (those that bring us to extremes—away from what Aristotle marks as virtue), including but not limited to gambling, are a recurring, multi-generational issue that affects our network; why would we expect a child’s reality to be any different unless we wanted it to be so?
The apple not falling far from the tree is no problem, so long as the tree is strong and deeply rooted in a nourishing bed of soil, tended to and cared for, by the hopeful gardeners who live off of it. Social-Emotional Leaders are hopeful gardeners.
A Whole Lot of Fun
So last year on Easter, I decided to act as a Social-Emotional Leader – to introduce a new custom that could be built into our tradition in addition to our traditional celebration. I invited my family’s participation in a Nintendo Wii tennis tournament. Everyone participated in the bracket—three generations–even those who were most reluctant. As teams were up to play, they got a practice round to get the feel of the Wii and then it was on to the tournament. In no time, teams were devising strategies and having real fun.
My nephew, Michael, and cousin, Tracy emerged as victors and during the final round of the tournament, the energy and excitement that came from the family room was a palpable sign that my objective was reached. As a result, interest in other indoor and outdoor games was generated that day and groups naturally formed to participate. This shows the contagious effect of positive emotion and that as social capital is built, it starts to grow exponentially.
What’s In This For YOU?
As we approach religious holidays this season, I urge you to consider what you bring to the table as a Social-Emotional Leader, should you choose to be. Put on your action researcher hat and consider what happens when you elicit positive emotion, intentionally, and how this space could help you create a new tradition for the culture of your network. My advice to you is to be creative, use your strengths, and leverage another Social-Emotional Leader or two to help you along the way.
As one of my coaches Mike Litman is fond of saying, “You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get it going.” I’d love to hear your stories – so please email me the results of your efforts. Have fun and good luck.
Alloro, L.J. (2008). Shift happens: Using Social-Emotional Leadership to create positive, sustainable cultural change. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons.
Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Gergen, K. (1999). An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.
Haidt, J., Sederka, J. P., & Kesebir, S. (2007). Hive psychology, happiness and public policy. In Posner, E., and Sunstein, C. (Eds.), The Journal of Legal Studies.
Turner, V. (1995). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures). New York: Aldine DeGruyter.
Images: All images used with permission of Louis Alloro.