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Graphic created by Samantha Kramer/MEDILL

Studies researched at of Knox College in Galesburg suggest that activism improves an individual's sense of well-being.

 Samantha Kramer/MEDILL

Jon Shaffer, the 23-year-old national executive director of GlobeMed, discusses his transformation from aspiring doctor to international health care advocate.  

Happiness comes with a picket sign

by Samantha Kramer
Oct 22, 2009

They are on every TV channel and lots of street corners. They are outside your office and at the mall. They are neighbors, friends, mothers, sons and significant others. They are activists.

And, despite the sentiments of discontent visible on their signs, stickers and slogans, activists may just be happier than their passive colleagues, according to a new review published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Political Psychology.

The review encompasses a set of three studies showing that people who engage in activism tend to be happier and possess a greater sense of vitality. 

Determining the effect of activism on a person’s well-being was the objective of the research conducted by Tim Kasser, professor and psychology chair at Knox College in Galesburg and visiting German graduate student Malte Klar, of the University of Gottingen.

Their findings suggest that activism and civil engagement is a natural force in any developed society and provides people with a sense of involvement in regard to problem solving.

“I think that, by nature, people are social animals,” Kasser said. “Once society becomes complex, it leads us to becoming political.”

Kasser noted that activism fulfills basic psychological needs for feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy.

By writing letters or protesting on the street, people assert their autonomy and power as an individual, he said. Activists very rarely act alone and usually operate within a network, thus providing a sense of relatedness. Kasser contended that, by setting reasonable goals such as acquiring a certain number of signatures for a petition, activists feel competent about their pursuit.

In one study, Kasser and Klar surveyed 359 activists recruited from and found nearly 30 percent were psychologically “flourishing.” Meanwhile, a "random community group" drafted by a survey-sampling agency had a significantly lower rate of flourishing individuals - roughly 18 percent.

Kasser described “flourishing” as the highest state of well-being.

“There are three states of being: ill-being, normality and flourishing,” Kasser explained. “Flourishing would be the marathon runner, while normality would be the everyday runner and ill-being a person with a broken leg.”

Kasser and Klar discovered that the happiness associated with activism did not fluctuate in response to a person’s political beliefs.

“If politically left or right, it didn’t really matter,” Kasser said. “If the experience does a good job serving needs, it doesn’t matter whether it’s about abortion, health care or polar bears.”

However, Kasser observed that responses from activists who engaged in high-risk behavior showed a weaker correlation with well-being since consequences from their actions could be greater, including job loss or physical injury.

Kasser offered another interpretation for the data divergence.

“Maybe high-riskers are just angrier, have a greater sense of injustice or have competence needs that have not been met,” he said.

Kasser remarked that it’s not surprising that activists are happier than the average person. He referenced the work of Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, the founder of the school of individual psychology, who suggested that selfish people were more prone to psychological problems than people who were more involved in society.

“It makes sense that your problems don’t look as bad if you go serve soup at a soup kitchen or volunteer at a hospital,” he said.

Dan McAdams, psychology department chair at Northwestern University, has extensively studied generativity, or a concern for others, in adults. He supported Kasser’s assessment.

“To be generative, you have to take care of others,” he said. “If you are your own child, you only have time to take care of yourself.”

McAdams noted that highly generative people often grow up with early advantages such as a financial prosperity, a stable home and positive role models.

In their final study, Kasser and Klar divided student survey volunteers into an activist group, non-activist group and a control group, devising a letter writing activity to establish that happiness not only correlated with activism, but also caused it.

Students assigned to the activist group were asked to write about the “ethical-political aspects” of cafeteria food, such as offering fair trade coffee, while the non-activists were asked to focus on more superficial elements such as their food preferences. 

According to the well-being scales of the third study, people who wrote letters that involved social causes experienced a greater sense of vitality that those who focus on their own wants. 

Kasser and Klar admit that their results are still tentative. He said he hoped others would follow up on the research.

Still, Kasser said he believes that activism is not only a sign of a happier person, but also a healthier country.

“A healthy democracy requires political activism on behalf of the citizens,” he noted. 

He said he hopes that American activists do not become an endangered species, considering the evolution in consumer culture and society’s materialist preoccupations.

“Pro-social goals are hard to have when you put a high value on financial success,” he said. “We are not socialized to think about what we can do as activists, but what we want at the mall.”