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Are Our Emotions Cranked To 11?

Have you been watching “Downton Abbey” like the rest of us?

Think about the Dowager Countess of Grantham, marvelous Maggie Smith. When she doesn’t like something, she gets a face like a cat that’s smelled something bad. And you get the message.

If you read authors like Edith Wharton and Jane Austin, you know there’s not a lot of bellowing and stomping around. Hearts are broken, fortunes lost, people became ill, or bereaved, despondent or angry, and through everything, they all use their inside voices.

Compare that to, say, the last week on this blog, in which the volume on everything was turned up to 11 (although the comments remained civil and I thank you all for that). Daughter had to rant in public to make her point, Dad had to shoot a computer to make his point, I had to “hate” Dad to make my point. And I’m not generally a hater. But I got swept into what seems a trend of our time: anger that becomes superheated, superfast.

It’s not necessarily just that America is getting less civil. For some reason these days, it seems we need the volume on all our emotions cranked way up. Even negative emotions. Maybe especially negative emotions. We need to watch screen violence that is increasingly extreme, we need to fight our battles publicly and with insults and vehemence, and we need to grieve extravagantly, where everyone can see us.

I was changed when Princess Diana was suddenly and tragically killed. Not because I cared about her, but because the level of public wailing and garment-rending, the piles of teddy bears, the overheated coverage, all kinda freaked me out. It was like grief gone wild. At that point, I checked out of the cult of celebrity.  I totally didn’t get it.

I grieved when John Lennon was shot. I even joined the crowd at the Dakota, where he lived and died, for Yoko’s 10 minutes of silence. But I went to the Dakota, I thought about John Lennon, I shed a tear, I went home. I didn’t camp out by a police barrier and wail, or leave a tear-stained letter on the  sidewalk.

And in addition to the period of communal grief when a national or world figure dies, social networking has  made grief part of the background noise of our lives. We get the outpourings of posts, comments, and videos when public figures die, but we also get the stream of personal little tributes: “it was 10 years ago,” … “miss you every day” …

I don’t object. I’m just observing.

We see symbols of grief on our streets and roadways. Near my home, a girl died when her car hit a tree. This was years ago. Five? Ten? It’s all blurred together, but this entire time, a shrine of flowers and stuffed animals has hung from that tree. The items are changed and refreshed occasionally, but not often. Maybe they change them every year, on the anniversary. I don’t know. For a long time, there was a large stuffed dog, pinned to the tree trunk by its ears, growing filthier and more forlorn as the seasons changed. It was depressing. And not in a good way. Something else has been pinned up there now, I think, and is in its own stage of decay.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum  honors “those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever” by the 1995 bombing of the  Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  I particularly like the Gates of Time, which are an elegant tribute to the moments before and after the fatal explosion . And the museum is remarkable and engrossing.

But there’s more. With all due respect to the victims, there is a whole lot of memorializing here. The gates and reflecting pool are the centerpiece, but the other centerpiece is the Field of Empty Chairs. Then there’s the Survivor Wall and the Survivor Tree. Also the Rescuers Orchard. There’s a wall full of colorful messages from children. And there’s The Fence, a small section of what was the original fence around the bomb site, where people still leave mementos and tributes. Two-hundred feet of fence covered with beads and stickers, crosses, cards, notes, wreaths, teddy bears, ID cards…whatever people could part with that would add their voice to the grief for all time. (Or until they clean the fence off and let it all start fresh. And all the mementos are archived)

It’s folk art, but what’s it about? Why are people drawn to a site that is designed to evoke sadness? Why do they feel compelled to enter the sadness?

What purpose do negative emotions serve? Why do we seek them out and why do we seem to need them? We yell at each other online, watch extreme violence, grieve loudly and/or publicly–there must be some reward to all that or we wouldn’t do it. Humans are funny that way.

In pondering this question, I stumbled on the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, which has been in the works for a while and will officially  launch with a symposium in April.

Dark tourism. I hadn’t heard that phrase. The Oklahoma City memorial, is dark tourism. So is Ground Zero. Battlefields. Auschwitz. The London Dungeon.  Alcatraz (one of my favorites).

From institute’s website:

It is only recently that dark tourism, in its various shades, has become widespread and seemingly more popular. Whilst it remains unclear as to whether the proliferation of dark tourism is due to an increased supply of attractions and sites, or whether consumers are demanding more and more of the macabre, media inspired or otherwise, death in touristic form is an increasing feature of the contemporary landscape.

It’s all of a piece, I think.  Yelling on blogs, watching people get blown up, visiting places that make us cry. We are drawn to the dark side, and perhaps more than we used to be. (Maybe? What do you think?)  We seek out ways to feel bad.

Have our lives become so easy that we seek out negative emotions? Are the ordinary scuffles, stories, and tragedies of our everyday lives no longer enough to satiate our need for negativity? Does grief connect us more strongly with others? Are we flooded with some sort of rewarding brain chemical when we experience grief and anger? (I assume anger comes with a dose of adrenalin, but does grief?) Can we become addicted to feelings?

Why have we supersized even negative emotions?

Are Our Emotions Cranked To 11?

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Are Our Emotions Cranked To 11?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Feb 2012
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