As the United States gears up for midyear elections, getting involved in a campaign might not only be a great opportunity to participate in democracy — it might make you feel better.
Two psychologists — Malte Klar, a practicing psychologist in Germany, and Tim Kasser, professor at Knox College — have found a clear link between political activism and a person's sense of well-being, and have shown that even a very small engagement with political activism can boost one's sense of vitality.
"Activists live a happier and more fulfilling life than the average person," said Klar, who studied with Kasser for a year.
In order to understand why political activism might improve one's life, it helps to know a little bit about what contributes to one's sense of well-being generally. Traditionally, psychologists have measured happiness in terms of how one is feeling in the moment — whether a person is experiencing pleasant emotions, isn't suffering from unpleasantness and is pretty much satisfied with his or her life. This conception is known as "hedonic" well-being.
But this is only one aspect of feeling good. Equally important, in Klar and Kasser's conception, is "eudaimonia" — a sense of life having purpose and direction. "It's the sense that my life is a good life, not because I have a lot of pleasure, but because life is meaningful, because it feels like I'm striving for a higher purpose," explained Kasser, who has written a book about how hedonic materialism does a poor job of satisfying people's psychological needs. "A classic example here is having children. It seems to provide people with a lot of meaning, but it does not have a high hedonic well-being because it involves a lot of hassles."
A third conception of well-being is social well-being, which has received the least attention in the field of psychology literature. "It's more about how am I doing with regard to my relationships with society, how am I connecting with society," Kasser said.
In order to feel good, Klar and Kasser suggest that individuals need to be satisfied in all these areas. And in order to do so, people need to feel autonomous and free, connected and competent.
"Our idea here was that maybe political activism does a good job of satisfying all those needs," Kasser said. "It's pretty rare that people in the U.S. are engaging in political activism because somebody is making them. Usually activism involves engagement with a group, and most groups have short-term goals that make people feel competent, like we're going to elect this one person."
In order to test the relationships between being politically active and feeling good, Klar and Kasser conducted two surveys asking different sample groups about both their history of and attitudes toward activism (Was being an activist part of their identity? Had they recently sent a letter?) and their feeling across a range of well-being indicators (Did they feel confident and positive about themselves? Did they have a sense of direction and purpose in life? Did they feel that people were generally kind?)
The researchers were initially concerned whether different measures of activism would all be correlated. It turned out they were. "There really is a coherent construct of being an activist," Kasser said.
But the big finding, published recently in Political Psychology, was that this "coherent construct of being an activist" correlated with being happy across the board. Those who engage in political activism feel better, have a greater sense of purpose and have more connection to their community than those who don't.
That being an activist causes this, however, is trickier to show. It is, after all, quite possible that those people who feel a greater sense of purpose, more connections to their community and just more positive generally are also the kinds of people who are the most likely to engage in activism. After all, if you don't think you can make a difference and you are socially isolated and down on life, it's probably hard to get started being an activist.
In an attempt to show causality, Klar and Kasser designed a simple experiment. They had students complete a survey about the college dining service. Half of the surveys covered ethical-political aspects of the food service, asking students, for example, to evaluate different reasons why the cafeteria should offer fair-trade coffee. The other half asked students to evaluate self-oriented aspects, like the price and quality of the food.
Students who had been randomly assigned to the "activist group" reported feeling more vitality after the experiment (vitality is an important component of eudaimonic happiness). Though such a manipulation only gives a small taste of what it is like to be an activist, the fact that even something as minimal as filling out an activist-y survey could increase vitality surprised Kasser. "I didn't think it was going to work," he said.
Similar findings have been reported in research on volunteering activity — there also seems to be pretty substantial evidence that those who volunteer say they are more satisfied with their lives than non-volunteers, and some limited evidence that the relationship is causal — i.e., volunteering improves life satisfaction.
There are, however, some limits to the supposed benefits of activism. Klar and Kasser found that what they labeled "high-risk activism" (basically, where activists run the risk of being arrested or injured) doesn't correlate with higher levels of well-being. Perhaps this is because high-risk activism appeals to people who are generally less content.
The researchers also found that while activism correlated with positive feelings, a lack of activism wasn't systematically correlated with negative feelings. There are plenty of angry activists out there. It's just that those angry activists also have a sense of well-being that comes from being engaged and connected and autonomous. "The fact that they are well at the same time that they are angry and upset is interesting, that people can feel both of those ways," Kasser said.
So those seemingly angry right-wing activists who spent the summer disrupting town hall meetings to protest health care reform might be making themselves feel better by getting engaged. "Maybe it didn't seem cheerful to be yelling about socialism, but their needs were well-met through engaging in that activity," Kasser noted.
So should everybody run out of their therapist's office and become a political activist? Well, maybe.
"If you know of a cause that feels truly important to you, get informed, get organized and get active," Klar said. "Activism might not only change your well-being for the better, but also the world."