People should radiate happiness but also be able to feel compunction; control themselves, but know when to give free rein to their feelings; love without suffering for it; and experience feelings of excitement and nostalgia without succumbing to emotional distress. Society adheres to a rather contradictory code for the expression of feelings or emotional imperatives. Feelings can lead to either a break in social ties or greater solidarity with others. In this article, IQ.HSE looks at emotional imperatives based on a report that HSE sociologist Olga Simonova presented at the XXI April Conference.
People today seem fascinated by their feelings. Experts on culture, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and historians all study them. Discussions about emotions sometimes eclipse those of the social and economic conditions in which people live. Of course, this is not surprising given the individualistic focus of modern society and the attention people give to the most intimate feelings—an important part of personal identit — and the tendency to perceive life through the prism of feelings.
This ‘mania of feelings’ is manifested in the fact that people both protect and cultivate feelings and censor their public expression. They proudly display ‘proper’ emotions but try to hide, control and put a more positive face on undesirable ones.
Many say that what society values and how it perceives reality determine which feelings are good and which are bad. According to Olga Simonova, emotions provide a ‘quick test of a given situation and help us navigate through uncertain circumstances.
But which feelings are ‘proper’? Who sets the criteria — and how?
Societies always develop a certain emotional culture — ideas about feelings, norms of their expression and scenarios for managing them in different situations.
This emotional culture regulates the life of society. It manifests itself in behaviour, experience, practices, speech and so on. For example:
People interpret and rationalize their emotional experiences, making them easier to control and live with.
Personal feelings produce a sense of community with other people and help individuals socialize.
Emotions are commodified: they are converted into money, turned into goods, and have economic effects. People value them and are willing to pay for them.
At the same time, excessive reflection and the commercialization of feelings creates a longing for direct or ‘primal’ feelings.
Such scientific areas of study as the sociology of emotions also take an interest in feelings. According to Olga Simonova, ‘Feelings sometimes capture the contradictory nature of modern society and its culture.’ Emotional imperatives also make for interesting research subjects.
Emotional imperatives are the cultural understanding of generally valid emotions and norms. They offer a prescription concerning what and how to feel in different situations.
They serve as a type of filter, leaving only those feelings that are considered most valuable.
Some emotional imperatives remain unattainable. For example, it is equally impossible to be constantly happy and to never feel anger or suffer. Still, society approves of happiness and includes it in the overall emotional mandate, whereas it places a taboo on negative feelings.
Emotional imperatives contain an element of compulsion. These are essentially ‘orders’ for particular behaviours that people address to themselves and others. But they are seen as mandatory not only for this reason but also because people themselves consider them critically important. In this sense, emotional ‘maxims’ are not only a burden but also the result of free choice. Thus, nostalgia is far from obligatory, but people experience it frequently: yearning for ‘the good ‘ol days’ gives them a sense of grounding — or, at least, the illusion of one.
The general properties of emotional imperatives are as follows:
They facilitate either ‘the cultivation or avoidance of certain feelings.’ People consider positive emotions to be natural and necessary, and they become concerned if they are absent. Conversely, many experience discomfort over feelings of shame or other painful emotions.
People experience many imperatives as an expression of their deeply internal and innermost desires. In this sense, they can be considered ‘cultural objectives, as the impulses of the soul for which we strive,’ said Simonova.
Emotional mandates are associated with the global phenomena of late modern societies. These include economic considerations; consumer culture; the commercialization of many aspects of life; the cult of self; the interpreting of social experience through feelings, thus giving them undue psychological and emotional significance; and the rapid development of many areas of life, thereby contributing to a sense of uncertainty about the future.
Science long ago experienced its ‘turning point’ concerning emotion. Early classics of sociology looked at emotions and emphasized their connection to societal constructs. Georg Simmel argued that residents of large cities had to learn to control their emotions and Talcott Parsons noted that emotional states are not only subordinate to rationality but also help reinforce it. Ruth Benedict, Barbara Rosenwein, Jan Plamper and other well-known researchers all studied the history of emotional reference points.
Based on the analysis of numerous scientific papers on the sociology of emotions, Olga Simonova identified the most significant emotional imperatives of our time.
Equanimity is central to the imperative of being able to manage one’s emotions rationally. The ability to cope with anxiety, anger and irritation makes it easier to deal with difficulties.
Emotional management is particularly relevant in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and the sense of anxiety that many people now experience constantly.
‘Emotional imperatives have social consequences by spreading various types of behaviour. They characterize the state of social ties,’ said Olga Simonova. ‘Therefore, during and after the pandemic, people might look for new ways to cope with anxiety, fears and stress by turning to specialists and the relevant literature. This shows the “effect” of emotional culture in that it is not always possible, for example, to “cope” with anxiety because it signals uncertainty and risks and tends to mobilize people,’ she said.
Self-control is also essential for career success: both equanimity and emotional intelligence have become part of ‘soft skills.’ Employees with poise are more likely to win over employers. In other words, the ability to manage one’s emotions is converted into money and a commodity.
This imperative also finds relevance in the private sphere when, for example, establishing and maintaining relationships.
‘It is interesting in this regard how primary social connections are reformatted,’ mused the researcher. ‘How will constant communication with loved ones during self-isolation affect the types of emotional work in the private sphere: will family members have to intensify efforts to control their emotions? What changes will the emotional ideologies of family relationships undergo — for example, what will happen to the emotional “economy of gratitude”? That is, how will gratitude for care be expressed within the family?’
The imperative to manage one’s feelings finds itself both linked to and in conflict with the imperative to express one’s ‘true feelings’ and the need to just ‘be yourself.’ The commercialization and rational management of emotions ‘give rise to the idea of the value of one’s feelings that must be preserved and protected.’ ‘We often display certain emotional reactions,’ the researcher explained, ‘but we also have true feelings that we sometimes hide or work on. In modern culture, they become something of an ideal.’
The natural imperative to ‘be happy’ and do what you like is associated with individualism and the demand for personal happiness. Happiness is defined, in part, as success. What’s more, the external side of the issue is also important: it is customary to demonstrate one’s well-being and happiness.
This imperative also becomes commodified by emphasizing the consumption of various goods associated with happiness.
‘Happiness is achieved through, among other things, the consumption of material goods — although not everyone considers this happiness — and by acquiring the symbols of success,’ the researcher said. Those symbols include numerous different objects and other things, from real estate to successful careers and relationships.
This ‘prescription’ at least partly dovetails with the imperative of ‘romantic love’ that a person must experience at least once in his or her life.
Love is considered a priority and a prerequisite for happiness, although the sociologist notes that the search for love has been rationalized. Single people search for partners with the help of various dating services, by filling out personal profiles on social networks and so on. People can also change partners in the search for someone more suitable.
In this idyllic world, unpleasant experiences are unwelcome and there is an imperative to ‘avoid negative feelings’ such as shame, grief, etc. People try to eliminate everything — relationships, situations, etc —that sadden, disturb or irritate them. Feelings of guilt can prove useful and the ability to show empathy holds promise.
The imperative of ‘individual guilt’ implies that a person should only blame himself for failures. ‘This is good for corporations with a neo-liberal style of management because it cultivates the understanding that employees are themselves to blame for their failures,’ commented Olga Simonova. ‘This is a rather effective means of control.’
Feelings of guilt, however, can also motivate a person to act by helping them cope with failure and continue towards their goal of success, happiness, etc.
The imperative of empathy and individual loyalty is also linked partly to the achievement of goals. For the sake of prospects, success at work and in relationships ‘it is necessary to express a certain degree of empathy and loyalty at all times, especially concerning subordinates,’ the researcher notes.
An element of commodification exists here as well: loyalty often translates into career growth, meaning money.
Society values the imperative of excitement, wonder and risk-taking as indicators of a ‘full life.’ People can ‘feel’ life by experiencing exciting events. For this reason, they seek out such sensations in extreme sports, adventures and sensual experiences.
The entertainment industry has commercialized excitement to the greatest extent possible, turning it into big business.
Having a full life does not exclude feelings of nostalgia in any way. Feelings of longing for the past or the future also exist. Life is changing constantly and this gives rise to feelings of uncertainty. People can reminisce as a way of counterbalancing current feelings of instability and fragmentation. In doing so, they can find a sense of stability and security.
‘The situation with the pandemic could deepen feelings of nostalgia,’ the researcher suggested. ‘Although little time has passed, the deepening social inequalities and problems will intensify longing for the past,’ she said.
People ‘will have difficulty giving up travel and geographic mobility,’ Simonova explained. ‘It will be harder to become a “person of the world.”’
She said that Russia is also at a turning point. People often looked fondly to their Soviet past, even though those were challenging times. ‘It is difficult to say where the pendulum will swing now,’ she said. ‘Will we “revive” those times or, as it is now fashionable to say, “zero out” that longing for all things Soviet and adopt different ideas, perhaps even utopian in their ideology?’
The demands stemming from emotional imperatives can have serious consequences. They include:
a rupturing of social relationships perceived as too complex, nerve-racking or ‘toxic’;
fatigue from the feelings that connect people with others;
loneliness born of heightened demands on life and people, the search for ideal, ‘problem-free’ relationships;
feelings of alienation, melancholy and depression resulting, for example, from the inability to achieve the ‘mandatory’ happiness and success;
a turning to the past rather than the present or the future;
a further deepening of anxiety and fears.
The author of the study does not rule out the possibility of positive outcomes either: we could see a new sense of ‘solidarity, with communities as shelters from failure, misery and the lack of love.’
In fact, there are several optimistic scenarios describing life after the coronavirus pandemic: new forms of solidarity and moral rules of mutual assistance might arise, the researcher notes. ‘Indeed, the pandemic contributes to a revisiting of moral rules — but it also deepens their uncertainty,’ Simonova reflects. ‘For example, the crisis of caring versus moral individualism that had been building before the pandemic has now become more acute. Whom should we care for? To whom and how should we show sympathy and compassion? For example, taking care of ourselves is undoubtedly an important moral precept because in taking care of ourselves in the current situation, we are taking care of others,’ the researcher said.
On the other hand, if we do not care for and empathize with others — which is usually the motivating factor behind all forms of assistance — we can expect great misery and suffering: the pandemic has shown how dependent we are on each other on a global scale.
‘This moral duality might lead to the formation of new moral ideas about how to feel compassion and empathy and how to act in such a complicated modern world,’ the sociologist concluded.