Why Experiencing Joy and Pain in a Group Is So Powerful
By Brené Brown
Adapted from Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and The Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW.
Today, our culture is in crisis. Many people have retreated to their ideological bunkers to hate from afar, dehumanizing others rather than risk having real, meaningful conversations across their differences.
How will we find our way back to each other?
It’s not by staying in our factions and echo chambers, pressured to conform to whatever viewpoints and ways of being are acceptable to our political and social groups. Instead, it will take a willingness to share our authentic stories, opinions, and selves, even when putting ourselves out there seems lonely.
As I recount in my book Braving the Wilderness, one of the keys to doing this work is maintaining a belief in the deep connection between every other human in the world that cannot be broken. I can stand up for what I believe is right when I know that regardless of the pushback and criticism, I’m connected to myself and others in a way that is unseverable.
However, our belief in that connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed. According to my research and interviews with thousands of people, one way to bolster that belief is to seek out everyday moments of collective joy and pain with strangers—moments that remind us of our common humanity, a foundation that can support us later when we find ourselves in conflict. We have to catch enough glimpses of people connecting to one another and experiencing shared emotion that we believe in our inextricable connection.
A couple of years ago, I watched a YouTube video of 95,000 Australian fans of the Liverpool Football Club gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a soccer match. For two minutes, a stadium of Liverpool fans swayed in unison as they sang the club’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” red scarves held high over their heads and tears streaming down many of their faces.
I was surprised to find myself fighting back my own tears. And based on the video’s six million views, you can be sure that it wasn’t just Liverpool fans, or even soccer fans, who found themselves misty-eyed and covered in goosebumps. In fact, the first comment on YouTube was from a user named “Manchester United Fan Prez”—Manchester being one of Liverpool’s greatest rivals. The comment simply read: RESPECT.
Regardless of which team we’re rooting for, the power of collective joy can transcend that division. In the interviews with my own research participants, music emerged as one of the most powerful conveners of collective joy and pain. It’s often at the heart of celebrations, spiritual gatherings, funerals, and protest movements.
The day after watching that video, my husband Steve and I made a commitment to make more time for football games (of the Texas variety), live music, and plays. In the age of YouTube, I’d started to forget what those moments felt like. And being there in person is so much more powerful.
I know exactly where I was on January 28, 1986.
I was driving down FM 1960, a busy four-lane thoroughfare in Houston, Texas. Suddenly, cars started pulling over to the curb. A few actually stopped right in the middle of their lane. My first thought was that a fire truck or ambulance must be coming from behind us. I slowed down to a crawl, but I couldn’t see the lights of an emergency vehicle.
As I rolled past a pickup truck at the curb, I glanced inside the cab and saw a man leaning on his steering wheel with his head buried in his hands. I immediately thought, We’re at war. I pulled over in front of him and turned on the radio just in time to hear the announcer say, “Again, the space shuttle Challenger has exploded.”
No. No. No. No. I started crying. I saw more people pulling over. Some were even getting out of their cars. It was as if people were desperate to bear witness to this tragedy with others—to not have to know this alone.
In Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, NASA is not just a beacon of possibility in space exploration—it’s where our friends and neighbors work. These are our people. Christa McAuliffe was going to be the first teacher in space. Teachers everywhere are our people.
After five or ten minutes, cars started moving again. But now as they made their way back into normal traffic, they had headlights on. No one on the radio said, “Turn your lights on if you’re driving.” Somehow, we instinctively knew that we were all part of this procession of grief.
I didn’t know those people or even talk to them, but if you ask where I was when the Challenger disaster happened, I will say, “I was with my people—the people of FM 1960.”
Collective joy and pain—whether at sports games or rock concerts, at vigils or funerals—are sacred experiences. They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature. We need these moments with strangers as reminders that despite how much we might dislike someone on Facebook or even in person, we are still inextricably connected. And it doesn’t have to be a big moment with thousands of strangers. We can be reminded of our inextricable connection after talking with a seatmate on a two-hour flight.
The problem is that we don’t show up for enough of these experiences. We feel vulnerable when we lean into that kind of shared joy and pain, and so we armor up. We might shove our hands into our pockets during the concert, or roll our eyes at the dance, or put our headphones on rather than get to know someone on the train.
Here’s why we need to catch these moments of human spark and be grateful for them: Walk onto the pitch in Melbourne and ask the audience to stop singing the Liverpool anthem and start talking about Brexit, and you’ve got a problem. If you gathered the men and women of FM 1960 in a room away from the time and context of the Challenger tragedy and asked them whether the U.S. government should put more money into defense spending, social welfare programs, or space exploration, do you think you’d see a lot of random hugging and patting on the back? These scenarios will more than likely fuel disconnection and reinforce assumptions that we are nothing alike.
At the same time, some collectives are coming together today at the expense of others—for example, to bond over the debasing of another person or group, to yell racist taunts or to affirm their hate. This kind of gathering does not heal our crisis of disconnection.
In this climate, the more we’re willing to seek out moments of collective joy and show up for experiences of collective pain—for real, in person, not online—the more difficult it becomes to deny our human connection, even with people we may disagree with. Not only do moments of collective emotion remind us of what is possible between people, but they also remind us of what is true about the human spirit: We are wired for connection.
In 1912, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim introduced the term collective effervescence after investigating what he originally described as a type of magic that he witnessed during religious ceremonies. Durkheim explained that collective effervescence is an experience of connection, communal emotion, and a “sensation of sacredness” that happens when we are a part of something bigger than us. Durkheim also proposed that, during these experiences of collective effervescence, our focus shifts from self to group.
Researchers Shira Gabriel, Jennifer Valenti, Kristin Naragon-Gainey, and Ariana Young recently measured how experiences of collective assembly (their term for these events) affect us. They found that these experiences contribute to a life filled with less loneliness and greater meaning, positive emotions, and social connection. As they write in their 2017 paper:
Collective assembly has long been a part of the human experience. . . . Collective assembly is more than just people coming together to distract themselves from life by watching a game, concert, or play—instead it is an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than oneself; it is an opportunity to feel joy, social connection, meaning, and peace.
And there seems to be a lingering effect—we hold on to our feelings of social connectedness and well-being past the actual event. Gabriel and her research team have tapped into why customs, pilgrimages, and feast days played such an important part in early religious culture, and why today we still love to gather at protests, sporting events, and concerts. We want more meaning and connection in our lives.
Courage and the collective
Sometimes, I show students videos of flash mobs and other moments of collective joy. School-aged children in these videos unapologetically and wholeheartedly lean into the experience. Adults? Some yes and some not so much. Tweens and teens? Rarely. They’re more likely to be mortified. Both joy and pain are vulnerable experiences to feel on our own, even more so with strangers.
The foundation of courage is vulnerability—the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy. In fact, as I’ve written in other books, I believe joy is probably the most vulnerable emotion we experience. As many research participants have shared with me, we’re afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we’ll get blindsided by disaster or disappointment.
That’s why in moments of real joy, we sometimes dress-rehearse tragedy. We see our child leave for the prom, and all we can think is “car crash.” We might get excited about an upcoming vacation and then start thinking “hurricane.” We try to beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining the worst or by feeling nothing in hopes that the “other shoe won’t drop.”
Pain is also a vulnerable emotion. It takes real courage to allow ourselves to feel pain. When we’re suffering, many of us are better at causing pain than feeling it. Rather than sitting with our hurt, we discharge our feelings by lashing out in anger or blaming others for our big suffering or our everyday hassles.
So, to seek out moments of collective joy and to show up for moments of collective pain, we have to be brave. That means we have to be vulnerable. We have to show up and put ourselves out there. When the singing starts and the dancing is under way, at the very least we need to tap our toes and hum along. When the tears fall and the hard story is shared, we have to show up and stay with the pain.
Before this work, I didn’t know why I put so much value on these collective moments. Why I intentionally go to a church where I can break bread, pass the peace, and sing with people who believe differently than I do. Why I cried the first time I took my kids to see U2 in concert and why they both reached out and held my hand during my favorite songs. Why the University of Texas fight song always makes me cheer and throw my “Hook ’em” sign up. Or why I’ve taught my kids that attending funerals is critically important, and when you’re there, you show up. You take part. Every song. Every prayer—even if it’s a language you don’t understand or a faith you don’t practice.
Collective assembly meets the primal human yearnings for shared social experiences. A collective assembly can start to heal the wounds of a traumatized community. When we come together to share authentic joy, hope, and pain, we melt the pervasive cynicism that often cloaks our better human nature.
From the book BRAVING THE WILDERNESS by Brené Brown. Copyright © 2017 by Brené Brown. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.