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Festivals offer long-lasting connection


People who go to festivals and other mass gatherings leave feeling more connected to other people and more willing to help strangers for at least six months after, a new study from Yale University has found.

Throughout history, mass gatherings such as collective rituals, festivals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages have created intense social bonds and feelings of unity in human societies. But psychologists from Yale university have been wondering whether modern-day secular gatherings that emphasise creativity and community can serve an even broader purpose.

So, the researchers examined people’s subjective experiences and social behaviour at gatherings such as the annual Burning Man festival in the US and in May reported their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

“We’ve long known festivals, pilgrimages and ceremonies make people feel more bonded with their own group,” says Daniel Yudkin, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of the study. “Here we show that experiences at secular mass gatherings also have the potential to expand the boundaries of moral concern beyond one’s own group.”

The research team, led by Molly Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, conducted field studies of more than 1,200 people attending multi-day mass gatherings in the US: Burning Man in the Nevada desert and Lightning in a Bottle and Dirty Bird in California; and in the UK at Burning Nest and Latitude, all events that feature art, music, and self-expression. They set up booths at the events, inviting passersby to “Play Games for Science”. Those who agreed to participate were asked about their experiences at the events along with their willingness to share resources with friends and strangers.

Overall, just over 63% reported having transformative experiences so profound they left the events feeling radically changed, including a substantial number of people who didn’t expect or even desire to be transformed. (And yes, transformative experiences were more intense among the 28% of subjects who reported taking psychedelic substances.)

People who reported transformative experiences also reported feeling more socially connected with all human beings, and with every passing day they spent at these events, participants expanded their circle of generosity beyond family and friends towards ‘strangers’. The research team recontacted some of the original attendees and another 2,000 people who had attended the event but were not originally interviewed and found that their transformative experiences and prosocial feelings persisted for at least six months.

“The findings are an important reminder of what we’ve missed in years of pandemic isolation: powerful social experiences, or what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence,’” says Yudkin.

Crockett concludes, “Transformative experiences help people transcend the borders of the self and connect with all of humanity — crucial qualities to cultivate as we work to end this pandemic and prevent future ones.”

Burning Man over the years

| WATCH: Four minutes inside Burning Man 2018

The findings are an important reminder of what we’ve missed in years of pandemic isolation: powerful social experiences, or what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’.

Daniel Yudkin

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