Why we celebrate

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


With all the holiday festivities upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about joy’s celebratory side. (Please forgive if these thoughts are a little rough, as I’m also simultaneously editing my thesis document and my attention is a little divided.) It’s interesting to think about what kind of adaptive value celebration has in human life. Why do we celebrate? Or rather, why do we need to celebrate?

We know that cultures all over the world celebrate, and though we celebrate in different ways, we often celebrate similar things: lifestage transitions, marriages, births, harvests, seasonal shifts, and good fortune. And though celebrations of foreign cultures may seem filled with alien customs, aesthetically there are many common elements. Sweets, such as cakes or candies, are common, as is alcohol in cultures that consume it. Bright color, music, and dancing are typical in celebrations around the world. Light is a particularly important element, as in the Christmas tree, the menorah, and the fireworks displays that commemorate a range of festive occasions. And exuberant bursting gestures — like those of fireworks, but also the breaking of a piñata, the throwing of confetti, and the open-armed jump for joy — seem to originate from the very nexus of joy within the human soul.

It seems clear to me that celebration is a universal human drive that like curiosity or lust is hardwired into us by evolution. That the aesthetics of celebration also have universal elements suggests that perhaps these elements have had a long association with events to be celebrated (sweetness, for example, would be a natural correlate with fruit harvests, and light a natural relationship to seasonal celebrations). The question is, is celebration itself adaptive — does it have a function that aids in the survival of humans and the propagation of the species? Or is it a byproduct of evolution, having evolved in the company of other traits that enhanced gene dispersal? I haven’t read any definitive treatment on the subject, but I believe there must be at least some adaptive value. In his book The Art Instinct, evolutionary theorist Denis Dutton references the importance of social cooperation in the evolution that got Homo sapiens where we are today. I think celebration is like a social form of reward that motivates cooperation and helps maintain social harmony. It also strengthens bonds that may be needed in tougher times. (Perhaps companies who eliminate holiday parties in an effort to save costs might be well-advised to reconsider, given these insights.)

I hope you have a wonderful holiday this season, whatever you are celebrating! And if you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them: How else could celebration be adaptive? What are celebration’s benefits? How is celebration good for us?

Image: Michael™. Poor dog!

December 16th, 2009


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