Why festivals make you happy

Landing back on planet earth after a festival is never easy. Having spent my summer at various festivals, I can definitely testify to this. I’ve found it hard to settle back into the normal ratio of work:play, when my dial has been fully tuned into ‘play’ mode for each five-day weekend.

After I spend all weekend dancing, drinking, and exploring with friends, there’s something very matt about the normal world - nothing seems to sparkle. Maybe that’s because it’s not socially acceptable to spend my time face-painting and skipping now I’m back in London, but maybe there’s something more to festivals than just their fun appeal that make them so hard to leave.

Power ballad yoga at Shambala 2016 helped us find our inner festival rock zen.

Power ballad yoga at Shambala 2016 helped us find our inner festival rock zen.

One unifying feature of any festival you will ever go to is that you will spend 100% of your time interacting with people - whether they be best friends, food sellers, newly discovered besties or fellow volunteers. Here, without electricity to charge our phones (or showers to wash our dusty and sticky bodies), we turn back a few years to a time when it was normal to communicate readily and freely with those around us. You’re in a queue? You chat. You’re buying food? You ask what’s tastiest. You need a mallet? You borrow from your neighbour.

The truth is that festivals represent a stronger community than most millennials have experienced in our entire lifetime, and it’s this that I think makes them so attractive to our generation, and indeed, so very hard to leave.

Festival community spirit in action

Festival community spirit in action

Psychology studies support this and show that human interactions do actually make us happier, which I think contributes to the ecstatic feeling of a festival weekend. One particular paper by Sandstrom and Dunn in 2014 explores how our interactions with both strong and weak ties affect our wellbeing.

During her Masters in Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Gillian Sandstrom’s research labs were situated five minutes from her supervisor’s office. During her frequent commute between buildings, Sandstrom ‘would smile and wave to the hot dog vendor on the corner’. She remarks ‘I realised that I felt better - I had a little bounce in my step.’ This prompted Sandstrom to ask the question ‘Why is this person who I don’t even know contributing to my happiness?’, which was the subject of her PhD and lead to much further research.

In Sandstrom and Dunn’s 2014 study, 58 first year students at the University of British Columbia were given a pair of tally counters. They were asked to count interactions with strong ties on one counter and with weak ties on the other. The same students were also asked to fill in an online questionnaire to rate their levels of well-being and belonging at the end of each day.

The study found that on average, people who interacted with more weak ties had a higher level of well-being and belonging, and this held across individuals of different personality types. This was also true at the individual level, with Sandstrom and Dunn finding that people had increased well-being on days when they had interacted with more weak ties than their own average, and increased belonging and well-being on days when they had interacted with more strong ties.

This study seems especially relatable to the effect that festivals have since they feed us socially in two ways: the higher levels of interaction with our strong ties - our close friends that we choose to go with and the more frequent interactions with weak ties - nearby campers and fellow revellers. Gillian Sandstrom, who carried out the study, and is now a Psychology Lecturer at the University of Essex suggests that “There are lots of factors that make music festivals enjoyable, but having extra opportunities to connect with and feel connected to other people is likely one of them. Humans have a fundamental need to belong, and when we talk to other people, even strangers, it helps to satisfy this need”.

The combination of spending more time with close friends and undergoing more frequent interactions with people we don’t know could really result in a greater feeling of happiness and belonging. It seems that beneath the surface of face-paints and glitter, festivals scratch a chronic itch deep inside us, feeding us with the rare fuel of community interaction. I think this is one of the biggest reasons we love festivals and hate to leave them, because by the end it feels like you’re leaving a real home. It’s unsurprising that after my most recent festival, I demanded that everyone drive back to my house where we watched a film and ordered take-away to fend off the normal world a little longer.

So if anyone needed it, here’s another reason to embrace festivals and sociality every summer - it really will make you happy.