The Surprising Role of Happiness in Acting for Social Change

"Common sense" about what motivates us to take social action is probably wrong.

Posted Sep 17, 2019

You may need to change what you thought you knew about who becomes active with social causes and why. That’s the surprising conclusion of several pieces of research I’ll touch on in this blog post. 

Are you active in any social change causes? Becoming active around a cause like addressing the climate crisis may seem daunting. It could mean having to defend your views to people who don’t agree with you, maybe alienating family or friends, and volunteering time that you could have spent on the couch watching a favorite show.

It sounds reasonable to expect that if we feel good, we won’t work to change the world. After all, we’re already happy, so why would we want to rock the boat? It’s only when we’re really angry and miserable about the state of the world that we finally take action—isn’t it?

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Surprisingly, studies have not supported this “common sense” view. In fact, it’s been found that students who are happier are more likely to act on social causes they care about — from environmental issues to countering white supremacy. In two different experiments, happier students were more likely to sign up to stay informed about the issues, donate money, and engage in protests. Data from the 2010 US General Social Survey complements this research. It shows that the happiest people are less worried about the environment, but are still more likely to have actually taken actions to protect the environment.

Far from weakening our social engagement, feeling better may give us the inner resources we need to take on difficult issues without being paralyzed. Perhaps there are other factors at play too. A longitudinal study of middle school students found that their levels of gratitude predicted how much they would help others, and how connected they would feel at the broader community level, six months later. It may be that, rather than making us complacent, gratitude, like happiness, can give our life a greater sense of purpose and of orientation toward our community. These, in turn, might nudge us to take social action.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

It could also be that feelings like despair or rage actually overwhelm us into inaction, or into not seeing the broader picture, and therefore not acting strategically. This latter possibility would be consistent with the broaden and build theory, which holds that experiencing positive emotions gives us a broader view of the situation before us, perhaps helping us to think more clearly and imaginatively, and to recall the long-term. Some experimental evidence supports this theory.

There are many models of why humans take action, and several may help explain what’s happening when people choose to become active in social causes. Research done by James Prochaska since the 1970s on one model of behavior change suggests that negativity isn’t a good motivator for action. Instead, feeling good about ourselves seems to improve our likelihood of long-term behavior change. Perhaps happiness and gratitude make us feel more optimistic, make us believe that change is possible and help motivate us to try to make it happen.

Few alive today know more about working nonviolently for social change than the man who wrote the foreword to my book, George Lakey. He has worked with myriad social change campaigns since the US civil rights movement, and has compiled a database analyzing hundreds of tactics from nearly 200 countries.

Lakey writes that focusing on what can be achieved, and on tactics that work, has helped to build people up, keeping them involved in the slow and daunting job of pushing for major changes like ending segregation in the US or helping women win the right to vote. In Lakey’s view, building a strong feeling of community, focusing on effective strategy, and experiencing shared moments of joy and elevation as well as honestly appraising what tactics aren’t working and need to change, are what keeps people motivated to stay active. So once people have some understanding of the social problems to be addressed, Lakey advises against spending time dwelling on them.

This is counter to what we’d do if we think that anger is the best motivator of social change. In that case, we would continually talk about the problem to make people feel angrier and angrier and thus more and more likely to act.

The findings discussed in this post aren’t suggesting that anger, rumination, fear or other responses are unreasonable when confronting issues like segregation or the lack of voting rights. But those responses on their own don’t seem to be the most likely to turn into social action. Of course, there can be individual variations in the trends discussed here and more research is needed to better understand the influence of gender, personality, culture, socioeconomic status, and many other factors.