Exercising Emotions: Culture and Drama


Humans in societies exercise emotions by watching or participating in cultural events.


Cultural events are those which are shared by a community, society or nation.  Cultural events have an influence and relevance that is proportional to the coverage that the event gets.  An event with a small audience is likely to have less influence than one with a large audience.

Benefits of this definition

Experiencing cultural events helps us to maintain emotional fitness.  Those shared events help to define who we are as individuals within the context of the society we live in.

The main event

Our shared emotional repertoire is created and maintained via cultural experiences.  The art of story telling, which is our fundamental cultural experience, has morphed over the centuries into multiple media including performing arts, books, newspapers, radio, television, movies and now the internet.  By tuning into any one of these media we can have an emotional experience that will stimulate some of our familiar emotions, thereby keeping us tuned and ready for emotional action in the society that we live in.

Emotional repertoire

What do we mean by emotional repertoire?  Each society, or culture tends to exercise and celebrate a different set of emotions, or a different way of expressing or experiencing emotions.  Sometimes we can make generalisations about people from different countries, such as the British tend to be reticent with their emotions, while Italians are quite outward, and kiss twice on the cheek.  The individuals in each of these societies have their behaviours moulded by the different cultural influences that they are exposed to, from the behaviour of those around them to television, books, plays, movies and the rest.

Societies evolve in a sporadic manner, picking up cultural elements from the societies near them through war, trade, migration and the rest and at any point in time, their cultural tradition will help to mould the emotional repertoire of the people who live in them, and their social norms.


A good example of a cultural tradition with profound effect on emotional repertoire is religion.  The earliest and most fundamental stories of any society are usually religious.  These stories often strongly infer how you must respond emotionally to certain behaviours or events.  For instance, there is usually emotional instruction for how to deal with birth, marriage, death, and also puberty, illness, menses and many of the other events that occur in people's lives. Birth is might be  celebrated with joy, marriage with solemnity, death with sadness.  Religion provides, or used to provide, a large amount of emotional structuring to peoples' lives.  Religion helped people to know when to feel happy, when to feel sad, and how to respond in a large number of situations.

Emotions are not spontaneous events individual to us.  They are cultural events that we learn from the society we live in.

Performing and Literary Arts

As human society evolved, other forms of expression developed, such as music, drama, dance, painting and other arts.  Emotions began to be expressed in ways not confined to what one might call religion. 

Music has significant emotional pull and can be used to arouse a crowd into a specific emotion.  It was regularly used in warfare, to frighten the enemy and urge an army to attack.  Music became a cultural tradition in itself whereby composers and performers could move a crowd and create a cultural tradition that elevates a society and helps emotional identification amongst its members. We associate classical orchestra music with 19th century Western Europe, gamelan music with Indonesia and sitar music with India for instance.  Each of the musical traditions elicits different emotions, and create social identity within their societies.

Drama, consisting of a group of actors telling a story through action and words, can be used to express a more complex set of emotions, and can be used in conjunction with music.  A standard drama consists of a build up and release of tension, often with an introduction and preamble that leads to a crisis point, after which there is a resolution.  A good drama is designed as an emotional exercise.  The story takes you on an emotional journey and leads you into what you are meant to feel.  If the crisis point is one of fear, then you are meant to feel fear, because that is what the author and the performers intend.  Once you have experienced the fear and been through the resolution, you are set back safely on the ground again, ready to leave the theatre and go back to your life.  During the drama, you have been through a somewhat milder version of the opponent process that I describe in an earlier presentation when a skydiver jumps out of an airplane, flies terrified through the sky and lands safely soon after flooded with euphoria.  During the course of watching the drama, you have exercised your emotions.

Drama, in modern times includes TV programmes and movies.  Different people like different types of drama, dependent on what emotions they want to exercise.  Some people like TV soaps, some like horror, others crime, others comedy.  Each genre of drama elicits different emotions but each takes the viewer on a carefully planned journey of emotions.

Dance, usually done in conjunction with music, is also highly effective at exercising emotion, however it is not nearly prevalent as music and drama.

Painting, including all forms of canvas or paper art, also plays a role in our emotional repertoire, which is probably a bit more difficult to define.  The emotions expressed are rather more subtle, and until recently, anyway, have not been easy to broadcast.  The internet has made the publication of high quality full color artwork much more prevalent and widespread, so maybe in the future, it will play a bigger role in how our emotions are moulded.


Sport should be mentioned because of its role in channelling natural aggression and teaching people to work in teams to achieve goals.  Historically sport was developed mainly for males, because they were the more aggressive sex.  Early sports such as jousting and archery were directly linked to warfare, but others developed as people realised the need for activities involving physical exertion.  If you are able to exert your aggressiveness in a good bout of tennis, then, not only do you get to exercise your emotion but it might prevent you from starting a fight with your neighbour, or going off to war.  Sport now plays an important role in our lives, and many understand the benefits of exercise to keep emotions regulated.  Further, there are emotional expectations around sport such as being a good loser, playing fair, and sport is regularly used to bring people together in bonds of shared experience.

Personal example

During my upbringing new emotional experience was introduced into my peer group via the explosion of music that occurred in the United States and Europe.  Described as Youth Culture, this culture, beginning in the 1960s, appeared in waves across western society beginning with rock'n roll, folk and blues which morphed into rock, psychedelia, metal, then punk, new wave, reggae, and then grunge, rap, drum and bass, hip hop and others as the movement died going into the 2000's.  At the start, this culture was not shared by the older generation, with some finding it quite distasteful.  This youth culture introduced new emotional experiences into a society that wasn't there before.

Challenge to audience

For the sake of our emotional fitness as individuals and our emotional cohesion within our society, it is important to retain a rich shared culture of religion, music, drama, sport, literature and the like.

References and further reading