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Activism makes you happy

How does activism affect us? Some may think that people who take to the streets are by and large angry, frustrated, bitter or deeply saddened by the state of the world. Why else would they take time out of their day to make a potentially controversial political statement, knowing full well that they may take heat for doing so?

From experience, I know that can be true. Protesters are often times driven by such emotions. But anger and sadness are not necessarily bad things, especially when they’re felt in response to real injustices in the world and are channeled into activism.

An interesting piece in the Guardian looks at new research that sheds light on the upside of taking action for something you believe in:

Malte Klar and Tim Kasser started by interviewing two sets of around 350 college students, both about their degree of political engagement and their levels of happiness and optimism. Both times, they found that those most inclined to go on a demo were also the cheeriest.

So there’s a link – but can politics actually make a person happier? In the third study, the academics took a bunch of students and divided them up into groups. The first were encouraged to write to the management of the college cafeteria asking for tastier food. The next lot wrote asking the cafe to source local or Fairtrade products. They were then tested on their wellbeing, and the group who had involved themselves in the political debate were far and away the strongest on the “vitality” scale: they felt more alive and enriched than those who merely complained about the menu.

There are many fascinating aspects to this . First, the activist-students didn’t necessarily care about food ethics, but just taking action made them feel better. Second, sending a memo is hardly the most engaging political action – and yet it had a big impact on those taking it. Third, the study flies in the face of the popular wisdom that happiness resides in creature comforts and relative affluence. Perhaps activism gives people a sense of purpose, or of agency or just a chance to hang out with other people. Most likely it does all of the above.