The Future of Emotion

An essay about the mall, “diseases of despair,” and why emotional people are the future of leadership.

Pete Wentz, c. 2007/Image via Billboard

Each civilization has looked at emotion in its own way. In early China, it was seen as a manifestation of a person’s innate essence, a phenomenon that “embodied the patterned workings of the cosmos itself.” Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers conceived of feelings as “complex judgments about what we regard as valuable.” In America, heightened emotion— and its public display by people in power— is evaluated harshly. But is this changing? 

In the fashion world, something seen as aesthetically valuable often originates in the undesirable. High fashion is an immaterial concept that lives in the mental switch that happens when ugly becomes beautiful. A similar process occurs in social movements. Things that are shameful become subjects of mass efforts to reclaim them as beneficial and freeing. Sex-positivity, for instance, validates various forms of (adult and consensual) sexual expression and relationship structures including BDSM and non-monogamy, and aims to depathologize female sexual desire. Similarly, a death-positive movement has recently emerged, offering people the chance to discuss mortality in receptive settings. 

An emotion-positive movement is within view in America. Although emotional health is seen by much of contemporary psychology as the result of a person’s ability to regulate his or her feelings, there is such a thing as overregulation. Despite the judgment toward emotionality that pervades our classrooms and corporate boardrooms, a creative thread runs through American culture that has embraced vulnerability, despair, and passion since the beginning. 

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In 1985, the D.C.-based band Rites of Spring put out an eponymous album that is widely regarded as the first in its genre: emo, short for emotional hardcore. Although the band members rejected the label, it described a kind of music that mixed the rapid onslaught of punk with deeply felt and personal lyrics. The genre’s much-lamented descent (or evolution, depending on who you’re talking to) into commercialism came in the mid-2000’s, when poster boys like Pete Wentz became living symbols of the dark side of suburban life and spoke openly to the press about prescription pharmaceuticals and mental health issues.

It’s a wave that has continued into today, with young rappers like XXX Tentacion, Lil Peep, and Lil Tracy bringing lyrics focused on yearning and devastation to Soundcloud, Tumblr and beyond. Although dismissed as inherently adolescent by older generations, many art forms associated with the emo tag are relevant to people of all ages. In a decade that has brought about a steady decline in life expectancy due to so-called “diseases of despair” such as opioid addiction, suicide, and depression, public health experts are finally investigating the root causes behind these epidemics—  not least among them the difficulty of surviving in an economic system marked by ever-increasing inequality.

Lil Tracy/Image via The Fader, photograph by Amanda Hakan

Whether one’s pain originates in emotional conflict or in the fight to prevail in a deeply unjust economy, there is no doubt that the expression of suffering is viewed harshly. In a society that values not only success but the constant appearance of success, it’s dangerous to voice defeat. Emotions like heartbreak were once the realm of teenage confessionals. It can be easier to express anguish and dejection when one doesn’t have a professional reputation to uphold, or mouths to feed. But there is a way to remain emotionally honest and uphold one’s responsibilities. More people, particularly those in positions of leadership, are opening up about vulnerability.

Image via Cheezburger

It’s easy to observe a history of behavioral expectations in rapidly dying consumer spaces like malls. Hot Topic, the commercial epicenter of commodified alt-culture, is often positioned next to a mom store such as Lane Bryant. 

Image via Accessories Magazine

While Hot Topic’s storefront is characterized by spiderweb motifs, jagged typography and dark colors associated with primal emotion, Lane Bryant’s space is light, clean, and sensible. 

Image via hallelectricalservices.com

Heightened emotion is associated with and expected of youth, but once grown, we are expected to prioritize clearheaded functionality. These qualities seem diametrically opposed, but a vision of personhood is emerging from Millennial/Gen Z youth that encompasses both.

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The idea of invulnerability as a requirement of professionalism may soon be obsolete. Much has been written in recent years about the belief that women executives should not try to emulate a masculine style of leadership, but utilize strengths that have long been considered “female.” One can see this idea aestheticized in the work of Simone Rocha, who sent models down the AW18 runway in power suits layered under sheer mesh. There is also a growing office trend of providing a meditation or recharge room for increasingly burnt-out employees. Has the moment arrived to finally be more emotionally genuine at work? It could be enormously helpful for people in the workplace to have the option of embracing a difficult moment, discussing it with others, and then returning to a task. Millions of people hide their emotional realities at work each day. This comes from the necessary demands of civility, and the desire for privacy. But perhaps we could devote ourselves more freely to initiatives we care about, and work more closely with our colleagues, if we didn’t feel the need to hide that we have anxiety or run to the bathroom so no one can see us cry. It could be a massive relief to feel allowed to be human without fear of being fired. The American workplace is in urgent need of a deeper emotional intelligence. It is possible to create a more transparent culture that is not inherently harmful. Introducing these ideas in a sphere where they haven’t traditionally belonged is a risk, but it is also risky to withhold honesty that could be mutually liberating.

Of course, life is about more than work, and emotion is about more than increasing productivity. This can be difficult to remember at a time when many people are struggling to survive. As impending awareness of AI is creating uncertainty, career experts are reminding us that emotional intelligence is one of the only advantages we have over machines that can do much of our work more efficiently. Highly emotional people, once considered pariahs, will be welcomed leaders in the coming era. And Gen Z, with its emo kid ancestry, is uniquely equipped to take over the world.