Once more with feeling: mining our rich emotional lives

For many of us, loneliness has been a by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, research reveals the concept of loneliness only began with nineteenth-century Romantic thinkers (though that doesn’t make it any easier for us today!). Learn how our conceptualisation of emotions has changed over time.

Teenage girl looking out window in contemplation

Do emotions have a history?

Throughout human history, emotions have inspired and shaped individuals and societies. The driving force behind wars, relationships, culture and creativity, they continue to play a central role in every realm of life today. 

The broad-ranging impacts of human emotions have, in recent years, been exhaustively explored and illuminated by Australian historians, psychologists, musicologists, archaeologists, and theatre, heritage and literary scholars. 

This multi-disciplinary approach has significantly expanded the international field of emotions research. It has also involved extensive engagement with schools, arts organisations and community groups, including the elderly and refugees, resulting in collaborative projects and performances that have enriched education and social, cultural and community life. 

Lessons for our life in lockdown

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Australian Catholic University has produced a series of video resources for helping people cope with the emotional challenges of social distancing and lockdown. 

The videos – reflections on historical ways of viewing isolation – reveal that the concept of loneliness only began with nineteenth-century Romantic thinkers. Early Christian ascetics sought isolation as a way of avoiding society’s distractions. Historical stories also demonstrate that being part of a community sharing the same experience can make us feel less lonely. 

Much of the history of emotions research, led by scholars such as the University of Western Australia’s Professors Philippa Maddern, Andrew Lynch and Susan Broomhall under the auspices of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, has been generated and influenced by dialogue with the community, one example being the five-year Zest Festival in remote, culturally diverse Kalbarri, in Western Australia. 

Celebrating the town’s historical, cultural and emotional links with countries on the route of the former Dutch East India Trading Company, the Zest Festival won the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) Australia Prize for Distinctive Work in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. 

The memory keepers

One fundamental question which academics have sought to answer, by scrutinising how emotions have been understood, expressed, performed and represented down the ages, is: “How have communal emotions and expectations shaped, and continued to shape, our individual and social lives, and our very conceptualisation of what it is to be human?” 

Among the topics they have researched are changes and continuities in the emotional attachment of Indigenous Australians to country, the shifting emotions associated with the 1942 bombing of Darwin, and the portrayal of mental illness in Australian art, film and television. 

One community project, Memory Keepers, led to the creation of a digital oral history collection, based on interviewing migrants to Melbourne about the emotional significance of objects brought with them from distant lands. 

Another, My Life as a Playlist, the outcome of a partnership with the ABC, explored, from a psychological perspective, how people use music to punctuate their everyday lives, comfort themselves in difficult times, and mark key life events, such as weddings and funerals.  

World-leading Australian research

Before Australian humanities scholars instituted their multi-disciplinary approach, emotions research was conducted mainly through the lenses of psychology and neuroscience. The Australian researchers not only deepened and diversified the scope of such work, but also deployed and drew on a much broader range of methodologies and source materials. 

Emotions, they argue, underlie many of the disciplines in which they work. 

Their research has resulted in a National Gallery of Victoria exhibition on love (in all its many forms) in art; a symposium on Australian children telling their stories in their own voices; a collaboration with Victorian Opera and Musica Viva on baroque “pasticcio” opera; and an illustrated children’s book encouraging empathy with animals, landscapes and the planet. 

Further reading & resources

Discovering Humanities series

This story is part of our Discovering Humanities series.

This series is a celebration of humanities research and discovery. Born out of our 50th anniversary in 2019, it covers just a small fraction of the many advances within the humanities since the Academy was first founded.

>> Explore the series 

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.