Most of the 210,000 people who go to Glastonbury festival probably think of it as a glorious event filled with music, dancing and camaraderie, story from The Conversation.

Those who avoid it may fail to see the appeal of a weekend of dirt, noise, crowds and toilets that don’t bear thinking about, writes Annayah Prosser, Assistant Professor in Marketing, Business and Society, University of Bath.

So who is right? Demand for tickets suggests that the gathering in Somerset has huge appeal (they sold out in under an hour for 2024, priced at £355 for the full weekend). But others, watching from the comfort of their sofas, might find it difficult to understand all the beaming mud-caked revellers. Surely some secretly wish they had stayed at home?

I’m an avid festival-goer myself, having been to events including Glastonbury, Burning Man and Latitude many times. I’ve also spent almost a decade researching festivals and other large gatherings in the UK and the US.

My aim has been to understand from a psychological and social perspective what it is that makes these events so special for those who attend. What is it that motivates people to go back year after year?

One of the reasons may be to do with my finding that attending festivals can actually change people’s lives (in a good way). For many, it is a “transformative experience” – an event that positively alters their sense of self and their relationships with others.

Those changes may be relatively minor, or they may change the entire direction of a festival-goer’s life. In general, though, these experiences were considered positive and resulted in people feeling more socially connected with others.

New research also shows that mass gatherings are particularly important for those interested in social change, as they are the perfect environment for people to unite around common interests or shared values.

This was highlighted when some colleagues and I interviewed people attending a British festival for vegans in 2021. We got a real sense that people found it empowering and motivating to spend time with a large group of people who shared a similar mindset.

In a largely non-vegan world, (recent estimates suggest that around 2% of people in the UK are vegan) they enjoyed the chance to spend a little time not being a minority group. As one 29-year-old woman told us: “Every time we’ve been in a queue, people look at your food and just say, ‘Oh that looks really good what’s that?’, and you just get talking and you have shared excitement over the food.”

She added: “It seems like such a little thing but it’s just so wholesome and heart-warming to have that experience with other like-minded people. It’s one of my favourite things [about coming here].”

Another female interviewee said: “My views were strong [before] but [being here] has really solidified them. I feed off of everyone else’s energies and it just makes me want to keep [practising veganism] and keep learning.”

Aside from delicious food, research also suggests that what people consume at a festival can dramatically influence their experience. Some said that certain substances, such as psychedelics, made them feel more connected to others, while others, including alcohol, led to feelings of being disconnected.

Experience and memory

A few days before Glastonbury 2024, it emerged that the number of music festivals cancelled, postponed or closed for good this year has risen to 50. Unfortunately, organisers seem to be struggling with rising costs and changes in ticket-buying habits, perhaps sparked by affordability during a cost-of-living crisis.

In a world where many of our interactions happen online, festivals are an important way to reconnect and be present with other people. The experiences that stick with attendees may happen by chance and involve new friendships, a random act of kindness, or even just a particularly meaningful conversation.

In the course of my work, I’ve also noticed that while people may initially be drawn to an event by a star-studded lineup or a festival’s reputation, for many, their most important experiences happened far away from the biggest stages or television coverage.

These kinds of experiences aren’t what you typically see in the media coverage of festivals, but they are a fundamental aspect of the experience for those who attend. And they could be one of the main reasons that people who fail to see Glastonbury’s appeal should consider joining in – as long as they manage to get a ticket – and can see beyond those toilets.