Aristotle argued that we're political animals at heart and that active involvement in society fulfils a basic human need. It's an idea that's been rediscovered recently by psychologists interested in well-being and human flourishing. Now the positive psychologists Malte Klar and Tim Kasser have provided some tentative evidence that activists are happier than non-activists. Moreover, they've shown that a brief activist task boosted participants' vitality levels compared to a group of controls.
Klar and Kasser recruited hundreds of college students and found that those who identified themselves as activists and who said they were planning some activism were happier and more fulfilled than non-activists. A second study made a similar finding with a sample of activists recruited through the website www.campusactivism.org compared with a control group of non-activists matched for gender and education. An exception to this general pattern was that extreme activism, such as that likely to lead to arrest, was not associated with more happiness.
Overall, the first two studies suggest that activists are happier than non-activists, but they don't say anything about whether happiness leads to activism or vice versa. However, Klar and Kasser's final study suggested tentatively that activism may actually lead to greater happiness.
One hundred and twelve student participants were encouraged to write to the college cafeteria director calling on him to source food more locally and ethically. These students subsequently reported feeling more energised and alive than a control group of participants who wrote to the director calling for tastier food and more choice (more global measures of happiness showed no difference between the groups).
It's not simply that the students in the activism condition were more motivated by the task they'd been given - in fact, the students in the control condition said they felt more strongly about the issues they were writing about than did the students in the activism condition.
"Activist groups might use these results to help recruit new members from a broader range of people, " the researchers said. "Further, they might be able to find ways to emphasise the psychological benefits of activism to help encourage current activists in their daily struggle for a better society."
Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Political Psychology, 30 (5), 755-777 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2009.00724.x