Today’s hot debates and social movements, brewing over social media, usually emerge from multidirectional waves of emotions. Social media amplifies, captures and enables mixed human emotions. Never before have so many people from all walks of life, been so open about their feelings, opinions and beliefs. In the extremes, logic, evidence or facts appear to have less impact over humanity, as people clamor for social media attention through sharing their emotions for social resonance.

While it is well known that the appeal to human emotion is a key driver of social media cultures, human emotions are not usually associated with sustainable development goals. With social media becoming one of the most influential sources of data and information, positive and negative emotions shared online (or offline) can now be viewed as driving and informing energies.

Multiple forms of emotional information, now much more accessible through social media via memes, tweets and conversations, have major implications for exploring whole-systems links between mental health, sustainability and quality of life. Projects of a transdisciplinary nature – particularly exploring the relationships between people-planet-technologies – are beginning to help people better understand how human emotions can inform in both professional and everyday life contexts.

For example, although my research highlighted how early career academics were learning how to innovate through engaging in their multiple networks within and beyond academia, a major underlying theme of my knowledge ecology model was mental health awareness in higher education as workplaces and their systems beyond.

It is my view that mental health awareness is an underlying issue, which should be considered more closely in all sustainable development integrations and implementations. In an effort to regenerate following a crisis, it is important for transdisciplinary knowledge producers to consider emotional information such as community members’ responses on social media or filmed personal interviews, alongside credible research based evidence that we have on the issue. My research offers three ways to understand how human emotions can inform and influence sustainable development.

1. Emotional information as problem emergence

Transdisciplinary approaches to digital and social innovation projects are problem centered. It is important to be able to trace and understand the problem – not necessarily as it is already clearly defined in the literature – but understanding the multi-dimensional backstory of how the problem has emerged from practice and other arenas including in everyday life. When I first told the personal story behind my knowledge ecology model, global discussion and community support platforms like #AcademicTwitter or r/AskAcademia did not yet exist, but we did have some personal narratives and dialogues about emotions, mental health and work-life balance in all aspects of academia and beyond, on the edge of moving away from social stigmas towards being socially acceptable and valued.

The project was also driven by a shared concern for the future sustainability of higher education systems by focusing on quality, health and satisfaction associated with responsible and ethical mentoring, learning and collaborative relationships. Intangible values and intrinsic motivations (i.e. mental health and wellbeing, self-efficacy, agency and work/life satisfaction) are gaps highlighted by my study. The knowledge ecosystem is an ideal model for early career researchers as interviews captured most of their hopes and dreams, which can now be contrasted with more grounded realities of present and future environments, often personally and emotionally expressed through social media more so than through mainstream media.

2. Emotional information as a sustainable resource

The social-ecological systems perspective in my research, which encompasses knowledge and information ecosystems, was growing more central to understanding broader global issues such as understanding and implementing partnership dynamics towards sustainable development goals set by United Nations, particularly Sustainable Development Goal #17 Partnerships for the Goals with its objective: To build a better world, we need to be supportive, empathetic, inventive, passionate and above all, cooperative.

Many gifted innovators I interviewed expressed passion for their area of research or teaching interests. Enjoying the research or teaching processes is important for sustaining informal learning outside of formal curriculum based learning, particularly self-directed learning where learning must come from an internal interest inspired by feelings of passion for their work. Optimism and willpower are important emotions used by innovators to remain positive and overcome negativity or obstacles, such as a perceived disinterest or opposition to their work or ideas. I particularly admire innovators who are courageous enough to live through these mixed emotions, going against the grain, to challenge and be challenged relentlessly over many, many years. Some do, but many never witness their unorthodox ideas evolve to eventually become normal and accepted by society, sometimes hundreds of years later.

Trusting oneself and gaining trust from others is also linked to gaining confidence during networking. Feelings of belonging and feeling valued by others also help the innovators network confidently and proactively. Sherrie, an educational technologist reflected during our conversation, that “being allowed to be on the periphery but trusted enough to be in that as well, that meant a lot to me. I thought, he thinks I can do it, you know? That was important and that gave me a lot of confidence to do my work.”

Negative feelings can also inform self-directed learning, emerging from perceived negative experiences. Frustration, confusion, self-doubt or rejection, are often used by innovators to strengthen themselves, to learn to be assertive and to recognize the need to speak up and defend themselves when necessary. Often negative feelings associated with the ‘invisible work’ such as loneliness or isolation, anxiety, pressure, failure, pain and harassment provide an impetus for improvement to innovators’ own (and others’) experiences. Cameron, a mental health researcher and counsellor spoke to me about understanding and harnessing emotions as a form of sustainability. “That interpersonal networking is what gives you confidence and also what helps you get a grip and get some perspective.” he confided. “Okay you feel like you’re drowning, you’re so stressed you’re going to puke… what you’re feeling is normal, but later on it’s going to be better. And that’s very valuable because if I hadn’t had that stuff around there’s no way I would be still working on this, not in a million years… this guy who’s a great researcher and has been around forever would obviously suffer periods of intense frustration and anger trying to get this really big job done. And that was really helpful to me. I thought… we all get angry, it’s normal.”

Experiences suggest that while negative emotions are challenging they are often necessary or ‘normal’ for learning personal growth and resilience. They are always dealt with in the informal sphere through self-reflection, empathizing with others during informal discussions and through social media, or solving problems together when working on a project. This sometimes leads to discovery of self-knowledge; when personal and experiential knowledge is discovered during the most challenging experiences, informed by their resulting emotions. Reflecting on experiential knowledge allows the innovator or change agent to offer their self-knowledge to others through storytelling or mentoring the next generations (or any generations) of innovators.

3. Emotional information as paradox

Based on recent research into how information in social media is experienced in everyday life, including navigating ambiguity as a key information experience, I am currently producing a documentary film exploring social media and mental health and wellbeing. The growing body of research into social media use shows a paradoxical communication medium that can both improve and harm our social relationships; both connect us and disconnect us, empower and isolate, proving to be both beneficial and detrimental for users’ psychological well-being. The film concept of social media as a paradox was also prompted during the making of the documentary Imaginative Storytelling Experiences, with underlying intergenerational themes of appreciating nature through the enchanted trees in Epping Forest in London, juxtaposed with the current preoccupation with digital worlds, particularly by the iGeneration.

What is your view on the role of human emotions in sustainability?

How can we better understand human emotions and mental health for sustainability goals?

To find out more:

Miller, F. (in press, 2020). Producing shared understanding for digital and social innovation: Bridging the gaps in transdisciplinary collaboration and impact. Palgrave Macmillan: UK.

Miller, F., Partridge, H. & Davis, K. (2019). Everyday life information experiences in Twitter: A grounded theory. InformationResearch, UK/Sweden, vol. 24, no. 2.

Imaginative Storytelling Experiences Documentary:


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