The Emotion of Protests

The Emotion of Protests

The people of Hong Kong have taken to the roads to express their disagreement with the proposed extradition bill. People protest to express their opinion and to urge their governments to make a meaningful change. But even though there may be no immediate success, many of us may find ourselves feeling emotional: inspired, empowered, elated, touched, or tingling with sensations that cannot quite be labelled.

Why does protesting feel so powerful?

The PERMA model of positive psychology suggests that we achieve happiness if we find balance in Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.

Protesting may arise from despair, anger or dissatisfaction, but at their essence, peaceful marches sing of hope for change. It satisfies our desire for engaging with activities that we find intrinsically rewarding. Most of us join a protest because we choose to, not because we are forced. Whether our emotions range from curiosity to fiery support of the cause, marching with other protestors floods us with hormones and chemicals linked to excitement and belongingness – we get a natural buzz.

Protesting touches on a deep-rooted yearning in all of us: the yearning for genuine human connection. Humans are by nature social animals. Despite having dwelled in groups for centuries, urban living has seen us come away from larger village communities or residing with extended families. This has drastically reduced the size of the group we see ourselves belonging to.

In urban areas, a high percentage of individuals tend to experience isolation or loneliness. We pass each other in the street without acknowledging each other’s presence, we avoid eye contact on public transport, and we are always rushing. When we are surrounded by too many unfamiliar, and thus unpredictable, humans in a fast-paced city, our brains encourage this behaviour as a measure of safety.

Photo Credits: Kyle Lam; Bloomberg; Getty

Conversely, our brains are wired to perceive humans similar to ourselves as safe, trustworthy and part of our tribe. Protests tap into exactly this: Hundreds of thousands of people uniting for the same cause and becoming a community of protestors. Wearing black as the united colour and seeing those around us wearing black is a form of non-verbal communication. It says: We fight for the same cause, we have the same values, and most importantly, we can trust each other – we are one group.

The sense of connection to an inconceivable 2 million other people explodes our hearts with belongingness. We look after each other and we support each other. Hong Kong has multiple examples of this during the protests. From providing free water over allowing ambulances to pass to protecting the elderly. The community stood on the commitment of ‘leave no person behind’. When in our daily lives do we get to see such a show of love and support?

This is amplified by what social psychology has shown time and time again: We feel bonded with other individuals when working as a team toward a mutual goal. Protesting in our community gives us meaning. When we support a community that feels threatened or powerless in a protest – a community that has become ours – we engage in action for a higher purpose; we achieve expression of our voices.

The PERMA model of happiness urges us to find happiness from balancing Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Feeling hopeful, feeling engaged with the cause, standing united as a community, taking meaningful action, and achieving expression allows us to feel those areas come alive. As a result, the most common emotion in protests is joy. So why does protesting feel so powerful? Peaceful protests give us a glimpse of the beauty of human nature and the emotion we can experience when our five areas of happiness are touched for one monumental instant.  

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