We came together to form the Community Action Party from a wide range of backgrounds and with a variety of motives: to improve the efficiency of government in the ACT; to strengthen the accountability of our elected representatives, or simply to make a difference to the way the ACT is run. Now it seems there is another reason to be politically active: it makes you feel happier! Recently published research by two university psychologists from Germany and America has confirmed Aristotle's 2,400-year-old observation that community activism fulfils a fundamental human need.
The authors, Malte Klar and Tim Kasser, looked at three aspects of 'happiness': i). 'hedonic', basically whether someone is experiencing pleasant rather than unpleasant emotions; ii). 'eudaimonic', meaning a sense of life having purpose and direction, and iii). 'social well-being', that is, how positively one is interacting with the community. In order to feel good, they argue that we need to feel satisfied in each of these areas.
A healthy ACT democracy requires that ordinary people, like you and I, devote time, money, and energy to counteract the many powerful forces that hinder government in the interests of the community. Struggle is inherent in political activism, which is why there are plenty of angry and upset activists in the CAP. Nevertheless, according to Klar and Kasser, it seems that even angry activists also have a sense of well-being that comes from being engaged and connected, competent and autonomous.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that people who feel a stronger sense of purpose, more connection to their community, and more generally positive are the type of people most likely to engage in political activism. So to strengthen their case, Klar and Kasser conducted a simple experiment. They asked hundreds of students to write letters to the management of their college cafeteria complaining about the variety and taste of the food on offer. Another group of students wrote asking the university café to offer locally-grown or fair-trade produce. Even after this rather insignificant political action, results suggested that participants assigned to write about political issues reported feeling significantly more alert, energized, and alive than did those who wrote about the purely hedonistic aspects of food.
Incidentally, engagement in what Klar and Kasser defined as 'high-risk' activist behaviour—meaning anything that would lead to arrest or physical injury—lacked the positive associations with personal well-being.
Admittedly, their study was short-term and limited to American students and activists, whose outlook might be somewhat different from the average CAP member. Nevertheless, after taking into account participants' age, ethnicity, political orientation, and education, those who scored higher in political activism consistently reported higher levels of personal well-being. In short, 'Activists live a happier and more fulfilling life than the average person' said Klar: a finding confirmed by my personal experience. So why not come along and join the Party!
Dr Chris Braddick, President
Malte Klar and Tim Kasser, 'Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being', Political Psychology, Volume 30(5), July 2009, pp.755-777.