Q: What is the psychological reason people get choked up when they see great accomplishments or performances? I am watching the Kennedy Center Honors and just watching the accomplishments of the artists is so inspiring that I got all choked up. Is it because we see greatness and a reinforcement of our values in a concrete form?
A: Yes. There’s an old-fashioned term called “reverence.” Traditionally, reverence was applied to the supernatural and the mystical. These have gone out of style, for the wrong reasons. To stop worshiping statues and fantasies is a good and rational thing. It’s a sign of personal and social progress. But to give up on ideals worthy of reverence is NOT a good thing. We live in a cynical and hardened society. Business leaders have been, to say the least, disappointing (as well as harassed). Political leaders have ranged from mediocre and uninspiring to unspeakably unethical.
Where is one to turn? To an arena that was there all along. To the realm of performance — most significantly, either athletic or artistic achievement. These were always important and now are more important than ever before. To watch people stretch their talents to limits not thought possible is inspiring. It does two things. One, it’s simply inspiring . You could feel hopeless about your own life, but still feel happy that somebody, somewhere, is achieving something great. Two, it can also provide hope that, in your own sphere of talent and interest, you likewise can stretch your abilities to limits not thought possible. Either way, seeing objective talent and greatness is reassurance that life, in this world, matters. The part of you that responds to this is the part of you still very much alive, no matter how you feel about the maladies in the world.