Sunday, 7 March 2010

Does political activism make you happy?

Well, this is interesting for us activists. The Guardian this week reported research findings from psychologists who investigated a possible link between activism and enhanced wellbeing: does political activism help someone be happy and flourish? I offer a few thoughts below, but first here's the article.

By Aditya Chakrabortty:

'Marching in the drizzle against wars in far-off countries, writing letters protesting the government's latest reactionary policy, sitting through interminable meetings that keep sprouting Any Other Business. It may be noble, but political activism is hardly a barrel of laughs. And yet it makes you happier.

So find two university psychologists in new research that looks for the first time at the link between political activity and wellbeing. 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.

"I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead," Barbara Castle told this paper in 1998. "And that's what keeps you alive." Maybe the Red Queen was on to something.'

First it's worth acknowledging that the evidence is thin, so this all needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It also obviously doesn't address potential downsides of activism like - choosing one at random here - being persistently vilified by your own comrades and expelled from the party you've been committed to for 17 years. But it's worth thinking, neverthless, about possible factors at work here.

It is known that wellbeing is linked far more closely to a sense of purpose and meaning in life than it is to consumption and material acquisitiveness. Activists - whatever their cause(s) - benefit from a deeper sense of purpose underpinning their lives. There's a question of alignment here, i.e. people feel better when their actions are aligned to their values. Doing something you believe in is likely to make you feel better about yourself. The flipside is that in a capitalist society there are enormous pressures estranging us from our own nature and capacities.

At a theoretical level we can go back to Marx's work on alientation to help understand this. More recently, psychologists like Oliver James have written about the damaging effects of unequal, competitive and status-obsessed societies on personal wellbeing. The authors of 'The Spirit Level' have provided a wealth of data revealing how economic inequality shapes a whole range of social phenomena, including mental health.

On the issue of activism and happiness, I suspect there are a number of other factors. Connecting with other people is good for us. Doing something for others is beneficial for the giver as well as the receiver - this is well-known from research, as well as being part of inherited wisdom. We all gain when we are able to utilise our talents - so often denied or suppressed in our society - and do things we are passionate about.

So, yes I think there's something in it, however fragile the evidence. It would be interesting to see further research into this neglected area. In the meantime, keep a smile on your face when you're doing that campaign stall in the rain...

Picture: last October's Stop the War national demonstration.

1 comment:

  1. Political engagement might. Being involved in the organised left certainly does not.