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Is Joy Communal?

Do we need a community to be truly happy?

The epidemic of depression that emerged with urbanization in the US and elsewhere is often attributed to loneliness and anonymity in large cities. Perhaps it is also due to reduced opportunities for expressing, and experiencing, joy.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” Clinical psychologists have paid a lot of attention to the weeping alone side of the proverb but the nature of positive emotions is a recent specialization in the field – an afterthought.

Happiness studies have paid a lot of attention to individual differences in self-reported happiness that are understood to have an important genetic component in addition to being affected by experiences and concentrated much less on the community.

The Sociability of Positive Emotions

The sociability of positive emotions for other species is hard to pin down from a scientific perspective but social hunters like wolves and African hunting dogs have elaborate greeting ceremonies when old companions are reunited after a separation. Such rituals may serve to cement dominance-submission relationships but they manifest the same joy that a domestic dog expresses when reunited with its owners each day after work. The other side of this coin is the evident dejection of a dog when its owners leave.

Psychologists have had a great deal to say about the connection between social isolation and depression. Examples include the loss of a spouse to divorce or bereavement. Moreover, the epidemic of modern depression is linked to urbanization, the loss of extended families, and other changes, such as frequent moves in search of work, that disrupt long-standing social relationships. Such phenomena have been the focus of attention for health researchers seeking to understand why some communities enjoy better health than others.

Communal Celebrations and Happiness in Roseto

Some four decades ago, researchers noticed that inhabitants of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, had much better heart health than Americans in surrounding communities (1). Indeed, a person in their sixties had the blood pressure readings of other Americans in their forties. This community was essentially a transplant given that so many of the residents hailed from the same village in Italy. Immigrants continued to speak Italian and maintained a vibrant community life little different from that of the homeland. In addition to informal visits to homes of friends, this meant enthusiastic celebration of events in the religious calendar by the entire community.

As the village became more Americanized, community life decayed and the cardiovascular advantages disappeared. Health researchers concluded that participating in the joys of life in a close-knit community may provide a substantial boost to health.

The Infectiousness of Laughter

How the local community affects health and happiness has not been well worked out but there are two possible explanations. It could be that people who have a lot of friends to interact with feel better prepared to cope when life's worst problems strike.

This stress-buffering hypothesis seems reasonable and is bolstered by evidence that sub populations with better health, such as the affluent, also have more extensive social networks.

Another possibility is that being in the company of other people facilitates interactions that elevate mood and reduce stress. So, laughter is an inherently social activity that accompanies all social gatherings. Just as people in a room start to yawn if others do so, we are also “infected” by others' laughter. That simple reality accounts for the use of canned laughter in TV comedy shows, although many also include live audiences.

Laughter is reflexive in other ways and can be produced by tickling people. (Chimpanzees raised in captivity also like to be tickled).

The social motivation for laughter seems to involve group solidarity. Children enjoy laughing at their teachers, for instance, and workers snigger at the boss behind his, or her, back. Such interactions likely relieve tension and enhance group solidarity.

We are not incapable of being happy when alone, of course, but there is a specific type of happiness that is induced by group interactions. People suddenly deprived of these experiences – for example by retiring – are more vulnerable to depression. The same is certainly true of the smallest group – such as a married couple - whose social reality exists independent of other groups.

The Dionysiac Versus the Apollonian in Music

Literary scholars – including philosopher Friedrich Nietzche – distinguish two basic ways of experiencing the world whether as self-possessed calculating individuals, or as drunken participants in a feast (2). Nietzche referred to the first as Apollonian (after the god of creation) and the second as Dionysiac (after Dionysus the god of wine and theatre).

We are particularly familiar with the Dionysiac in music where a catchy tune makes everyone unconsciously keep time by tapping a finger or toe. Popular music is particularly effective in elevating a person's mood and a handful of the most joy-inspiring numbers get played ad infinitum.

Such timeless anthems of popular music as “Hotel California,” “We Are the World,” or “American Pie” are pure expressions of Dionysiac joy.

What goes for music also goes for laughter and solidarity more generally. We are social beings and

isolation from the physical presence of others deprives us of communal pathways to happiness that lifted our spirits since the Stone Age.


1. Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

2 Nietzche, F. (1872/2008). The birth of tragedy (Trans. Douglas Smith). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

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