The Tranquility of Disaster

Here in my dry, fully-electrified perch in Brooklyn, I’m battling the realization that Sandy has left me quite content. I’m not a heartless sociopath, so I shouldn’t feel that way. Sandy was a tragedy, and though I feel terrible for all the destroyed lives, there’s no denying that another part of me feels a sense of calmness. How could a tragedy leave a person feeling positive?

One explanation is that tragedy provides perspective. When you see somebody lose everything, you become content with what you have. You’re satisfied because at least you’re not on TV giving an interview in front of half your house. For a moment all those daily trials and tribulations melt away. Your life is enough.

Normally, when you walk out into the world there’s a din of people arguing. Such daily disputes on politics, culture, or social norms sustain us and make life meaningful, but they also add a layer of negative affect onto existence. When a tragedy puts things in perspective you stop giving people shit over minor things. You act more selflessly. For a moment society begins to reach its potential. As long as the tragedy doesn’t shake the foundation of your life (e.g. 9/11, Pearl Harbor), you start to feel content.

Ultimately, I think this type of psychological response to Sandy will give Obama a boost, especially because there won’t be time for the feelings to dissipate. Incumbents tend to benefit when people feel good. For example, there is some evidence that suggests a victory for the local college football team can help incumbents. Sandy will have Americans feeling good about their lives. If the big question is whether you’re better off than you were four years ago, realizing you still have your home and loved ones makes you feel that you are.

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