Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Does political activism make us happy?

One of my facebook friends sent me a link to a recent Guardian article by Aditya Chakrabortty summarizing recent research claiming to demonstrate a link between happiness and political activism:

According to 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.

I guess this applies to the Tea Party groups as well as to the left of center, feminist groups I identify with--although the tea party folks strike me as far more angry than “happy.”

Klar and Kasser’s research provides some support for what I’ve observed. I remember as a young activist marveling at all the old communists who seemed so cheerful handing out their leaflets and copies of the Daily World. They seemed so much more alive than most of the old people I knew.

And yes, people on the left can be just as angry and embittered as any tea party type, but for the most part the people I have known in social movements have always seemed so much more alive and engaged with the world than the non-activists.

Although the projects changed in response to changes in my life circumstances and the political possibilities of the time, activism has been a constant thread in my life. Like many young people who came of age in the 60’s, my activist projects were the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. After a brief involvement in far left politics, I backed away from trying to change the world and focused on changes I could make in my own backyard. When my son entered public school, I began a whole new very rewarding second career (unpaid of course) as a public school activist.

In the aftermath of Reagan’s election in 1980, a real shift occurred. As I watched the Reagan administration build up the military budget and starve social programs, I realized I could no longer afford to vote for protest candidates.In the early 80’s I discovered my real activist passion--feminism. I missed the early 70’s golden age of feminist activism thanks to participation in groups which viewed feminism as a petit bourgeois deviation, but I’ve made up for it in the last 30 years!

I managed to combine feminist activism with involvement in electoral politics by working to elect feminist candidates and encouraging more women to become involved in grassroots politics. The last 8 years as Philadelphia NOW chapter president was probably my most satisfying activist project.

Now that I am retired, both from my teaching job and my main volunteer job as Phila NOW President, I've started looking around for new activist projects. I have the time!

I’ve been involved in setting up a new organization, Southeastern Pennsylvania NOW PAC, I am still a Democratic committeeperson and am now running for Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee. (Forty years ago, I would not have believed that I would end my activist days as a democratic committeeperson. But at this stage in my life, slow gradual change is all I can imagine. There is a reason that revolutions are always made by the young.)

One of the wonderful things about an activist career is that there is always the opportunity for learning something new-–options not always available in paid employment. I ran for the board of Philly Cam, our local cable access station, and now have the opportunity to learn about something totally new(to me).

I didn’t set about to do all this to become happy, and I’m not sure if I would call myself “happy”—-whatever that means—-but I feel engaged and part of the world and hope to keep this up as long as I can.


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  2. Good for you! We share our protest history from the sixties and seventies. And I proudly participated in and led women's consciousness raising groups then, too. Jobs, kids, and limited time created a long lull, but I'm back, with retirement, and dipping a toe into a number of activist opportunities. Research shows that being part of a striving group that makes a difference and that shares our values is an excellent way to boost well-being.

  3. I think when the baby boom generation retires in large numbers we might see a real upsurge in feminist activism—at least that’s what I’m hoping.