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Anthropology: Collective Ritualized Performances the Key as a Means to Studying Happiness

Most cultures consider the pursuit of happiness to be of paramount importance. Many countries have enshrined the right to seek happiness into their constitutions and some even have a Ministry of Happiness. But how does anthropology fit in?

Significant anthropological research into happiness, however, has been scarce. This is due to the intangibility of the concept, difficulties in measurement and the culturally specific nature of happiness.

But don’t worry, we are not all destined to live miserable lives devoid of happiness as a result. Partly because most of us don’t wait for significant research into a concept to experience it and partly because research into collective ritualised performance can tell us a great deal about the cultural facilitation of happiness. 

How can we measure happiness?

A map with color code of how happy countries are.

The World Happiness Report puts Finland at the top of the list for “happiest country in the world” which they have secured for the past three years (2017-2020). Meanwhile the Global Emotions survey puts Panama and Uruguay at the top of the list. It would be interesting to see how the measurements have changed with COVID-19 and the Pandemic.

However all in all, there is no agreement on the most accurate method to measure happiness. However, there are a few major approaches that are important within happiness scholarship. 

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade’s 2005 study of a person’s chronic happiness level presented three major factors that affect chronic happiness. 

Firstly, their set point which they described as the fixed and unchanging constant determined by genetics. 

Secondly, the circumstances of their life such as their occupation, culture, health and, interestingly, their religion. The fact that religion, which often involves collective ritualized performance, is mentioned within one of the three main categories that affect chronic happiness highlights its importance within the study of happiness. 

Thirdly, their intentional activities, which reinforces the idea of happiness being made. 

Alternatively, Lu suggested in their 2001 study that there are four main themes to happiness. 

Firstly, the person’s mental state relates to their perception of their contentment and satisfaction with life. It also relates to positive emotions, freedom from negative things and their sense of achievement. 

Secondly, a harmonious state in which they have agency over their own happiness and they are positive for the future. 

Thirdly, a belief that the relationship between unhappiness and happiness is continual, variable and that unhappiness gives happiness meaning. 

Fourthly, the belief that happiness can and will be achieved for them. 

Does money make you happy?

Studies are a bit hazy on this one. However there are multiple studies have shown that despite greater levels of economic prosperity in Western societies since 1945, reported happiness and well-being have not increased in line with this greater prosperity. Many studies have focused on the causes of this discrepancy. They have also focused on, more generally, the factors for increased happiness. Few, however, have focused on how religious experiences and other forms of collective ritualized performance factor into happiness research. This underdeveloped area has attracted research from a wide variety of fields. These fields include anthropology, social policy, psychology, economics and public theology.   

One study suggests that higher pay does make people report feeling happy.

Wolfers Stevenson Money Satisfaction Table
Credit: Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson

“Economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson took data from 155 countries — 95 percent of the world’s population — and found that as people get richer, they report feeling happier. The results are consistent across the countries they analyzed, which is to say that rich countries are happier than their poorer counterparts, and they say there is no level at which happiness tops off…”

From an article

Another key theory we should discuss in relation to the research of collective ritualized performance is “structural ritualization theory”. This theory focuses on the role of symbolic rituals in social interaction and social structure development. An important element of this theory is the study of “ritualized symbolic practice” which consists of a schema-driven and emotionally laden action repertoire. Studying the emotional element of these rituals is considered crucial to its understanding. The relatively recent inclusion of the analysis of the emotional component into the study of rituals is telling of a slow movement to consider happiness, in particular, in a greater scope of research.

What are collective rituals?

Happiness ritual
What are collective rituals?

Collective ritualized performances come in many forms, both religious and secular. However, both forms share certain characteristics that mark them as “special collective ritual events”. 

Firstly, these events include many participants. Despite this, a sole person could engage in the activity in a related manner if they are unable to attend the main gathering. 

Secondly, these collective performances often occur on a decided schedule or are linked to other events such as a celebrated achievement or a seasonal occurrence. 

Thirdly, the events include some kind of stylized activity or activities that are distinctive to the ritual. 

Fourthly, the event is clearly distinguished from the practices of everyday life. 

Why are they important?

Happiness text
The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Anthropological scholarship has long emphasized the importance of rituals within human societies, including some of the most influential scholars including Durkheim, Collins, Douglas, Turner and Goffman. Durkheim, in particular, focused on the idea of “collective effervescence”. This is a concept that, coined by Durkheim in his 1912 book “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, is mostly used in a sociological context. It refers to when society comes together and simultaneously participates in the same action while communicating the same thought. How you could prove they were all thinking the same thought, however, is unclear. At least one of them has to be thinking about their dinner. 

 Why do we do them?

Happiness through performance
Collective ritual

Collective rituals can be fairly expensive in terms of energy, resources, time, money and some can even be dangerous, so why do we bother? Evolutionary anthropologists like Bulbulia, Sosis and Irons have suggested that these collective rituals can be displays of commitment to the group and therefore need to be expensive in order to prove commitment.

Psychologists, however, like Liénard and Boyer have suggested that the memory of the “successful” collective ritual encourages the continuation of the collective rituals. They define the success of the collective ritual as the activation of specific individual neurocognitive systems. These systems spark motivation and information processing systems that make the experiences compelling. In this way, research into collective ritualized performance helps us better understand the inbuilt systems of human happiness.

How do collective rituals affect happiness?

Happy participants

Studies into these collective rituals, such as Shils and Young’s 1953 study of the British Coronation, have suggested that the larger the common focus of attention on the objects of the event, the more intense the emotions experienced by the participants. These objects could include the other participants, the action sequences, symbols or physical objects used. 

Research has also found that the higher the number of activities within the collective performance, the greater the collective emotion. It has been suggested that this is due in part to the greater interdependence between participants. This leads to greater feelings of happiness due to the shared enterprise. It has also been suggested that the higher the intensity of positive emotions during these events, the higher dedication to the events and the social group itself. In this way, the collective rituals not only affect happiness but also reinforce the event itself and the social ties that have created it.

It has also been suggested that these collective rituals, particularly when re-created, can play a vital role in helping participants cope with disruptive situations such as war or long term expeditions. Research such as this can be extremely beneficial to the cultural facilitation of happiness. This research highlights the importance of collective rituals for both social ties and coping mechanisms for trauma. 

What counts as a collective ritual? 

Leisure Activity

If you are not one for mass dances or ritualised ceremonies then you might think this doesn’t apply to you. Don’t worry, you still have a shot at happiness if you engage in leisure activities. Leisure activities are commonly considered by researchers to be good for well-being. This is as they are under personal control more so than other influences on well-being. Brown et al.’s 2015 study, which used data from the UKHLS Survey, has shown that leisure activities can influence life satisfaction in a variety of ways. For example, active activities can positively affect life satisfaction. Activities such as museums, theatre and gallery-going and other popular entertainment activities, however, were not.

Sedentary- creative activities like reading were also not associated with life satisfaction. The study associated high life satisfaction with participating in a variety of activities as opposed to the frequency of this participation. The study also suggested that in the pursuit of an increase in life satisfaction the promotion of active leisure activities that involve social interactions are key. Studies such as these stress the importance of collective activities for the cultural facilitation of happiness. They are often used to support proposals to increase funding and facilitate greater access to leisure activities such as sport and the arts.

Folk Dance and Religion

Folk dance
Hungarian folk dancers

Another interesting leisure activity to consider is folk dance. Kiddy’s 2015 comparative study of Cajun, Zydeco and Scandinavian social folk dance found that engagement in group dances increased the participants’ sense of inclusion, accomplishment and empowerment. Studies have linked these feelings to better group cohesion as well as increased well-being. 

Research into religion has become more interested in emotions in recent years and in particular group emotions. Many have studied the so-called “wow” effect which concerns the shared feelings and perceptions of a group. R. R. Marett’s approach to the study of religion suggests a conception of religion as an “organic complex of thought, emotion, and behaviour”. However, as concepts of happiness are culturally specific, it is difficult to draw large scale conclusions on its facilitation and influences. 

Ethnographic studies of happiness provide, in greater detail than statistics and surveys can alone, the socio-cultural context of the cultural facilitation of happiness as well as its many influences. We can use these studies to compare happiness facilitation cross-culturally. This could highlight some shared meanings and influences which could aid our understanding of the cultural facilitation of happiness. Ethnographic studies do, however, have their limitations. For example, they are often interpretive and subjective. They also can often only be applied to the context or contexts they are focusing on. 

No single definition of happiness

Choose your happiness
Choose your own happiness

Perhaps for a true understanding of the cultural facilitation of happiness, we need a more multi-disciplinary approach. Perhaps we need an approach that brings together statistics, survey data, psychological findings and ethnographic studies of multiple societies. 

Happiness research can also help shape government policy decisions. This research is particularly helpful as surveys of subjective well-being, although not perfect, can help governments identify which policies are beneficial to overall happiness. For example, research into the benefits of collective ritualized performance could lead to greater funding for sectors that facilitate these performances like the arts.  

What next for the anthropology of happiness?

Happiness Street
Happy Street

Research into collective ritualized performance comes in a variety of forms but all, generally speaking, and despite the underappreciation of the field, help us appreciate the cultural facilitation of happiness. The importance and wide implications of this research have led to it being studied by a number of fields. These fields include anthropology, social policy researchers, economics, psychology and policymakers. However, this range of discipline attention has invariably led to a variety of definitions and conclusions concerning the key terms and influences. For example, no definite or universal method for the accurate measurement of happiness or its cultural facilitation has emerged. Unfortunately, there is a common preference within the “hard sciences”, government policymakers and the general public for a more analytical and definitive approach. 

This research helps us better appreciate the cultural facilitation of happiness. This is due to the emphasis it places on the psychological and social benefits of these performances. We need to either move away from narrow definitions of scientific evidence or facilitate a more multidisciplinary approach to collective ritualized performances. This approach would create a more well-rounded picture of how these collective performances influence happiness. It would also allow us to better guide policymakers and governments in the cultural facilitation of happiness.    

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