Image: Obama supporters
Alex Brandon  /  AP file
There's an irresistible urge to share a big moment with a big group, as millions of Obama supporters experienced firsthand on Tuesday night.
By Health writer
updated 11/6/2008 8:43:45 AM ET 2008-11-06T13:43:45

In moments of extreme elation, such as the way Barack Obama supporters felt Tuesday night after his historic victory, we get the urge to do things we normally avoid in public: Scream. Dance. Cry. Hug someone — anyone.

But whatever it is we feel the urge to do, chances are, we want to share it with someone else.

“We experience emotions socially,” says Jack Dovidio, a Yale University social psychologist. “Joy by oneself is not the same as joy with other people. It’s the idea of sharing it with others that magnifies it.”

In New York City, thousands of strangers flooded Times Square; in Seattle, they took over Pike Place Market; and in New Orleans, jazz musicians led a spontaneous parade through the city streets. Experts say shared experiences like those can turn strangers into friends, tighten bonds between loved ones and even lay the foundation for healing broken relationships. In short, it creates a common ground where there was none.

“The positive mood in particular makes you expand your boundaries of who’s in your group,” Dovidio says. “So people in positive moods tend to be much more inclusive of what they consider to be in their group.”

It's an evolutionary urge, he explains, because being a solidified member of a group was once essential to human survival.

Twenty-five-year-old Claire Suni spent hours celebrating on the streets of Seattle, her home town, where she made an unexpected friend — a little old man who looked her straight in the eye and gave her a huge hug. “He grabbed my shoulders and kept saying, ‘Obama! Obama!’”

Even self-described standoffish people, like 24-year-old Jade Baranski of Sacramento, Calif., couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch someone. “Hugging is not a standard thing for me, but in the circumstances, you made eye contact and you’re like, ‘Uh huh. Yeah. Let’s do this,’” Baranski says.

It was especially a relief for Suni, who feared another controversial election like the presidential races in 2000 and 2004. In the first few moments after the announcement that Obama would be the next president, she couldn’t believe it. “There was that sort of hesitancy to accept that this was what really happened. Are they really going to let this happen?” Suni says.

Instant tension relief
For many, hugging, screaming and dancing with those around them was a way to immediately release the tension that has been building for nearly two years. During the first few hours of watching election returns at a bar in midtown Sacramento, patrons were cordial to each other, but when they learned Obama had won, the hugs and high-fives among strangers began.

“Emotions have a lot of fluidity and flexibility; if I’m feeling a lot of tension or nervousness, and the situation changes, all that emotion can be turned into euphoria,” Dovidio says.

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But while joy is often best shared, solitude may be the needed balm for some who feel bitter disappointment. Lynn Krogh, the president of the New York Young Republicans, planned and attended an event for 400 people, mostly members of her organization. When John McCain lost Ohio, Pennsylvania and then the election, some of the young Republicans cried, some hugged – but no one stuck around.

“People were angry and upset, and there were certainly hugs going around,” Krogh says. “I know there were some people — some of my hard-core members — who left who just didn’t want to be in a big crowd.”

As for Krogh, all she wanted was to be home with her boyfriend and her dog. But Dovidio says negative events can help to bond us together as much as positive events.

“A shared negative event is very therapeutic. It’s a way of binding people together who share a common loss and it makes people feel better,” Dovidio says.

He compares Tuesday night’s celebration to other historic events in American history: the end of World War II, the day the first man walked on the moon and the day the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004.

But the problem with emotions is that they’re fleeting – it’ll take some work to maintain those fragile friendships forged on Tuesday night.

Dovidio says, “The question is: Do we choose to build on those connections, or do we let that slip by?”

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