As to the discussion for when to intervene in situations of injustice arises, society is often caught in between two polarized options: action and inaction. And, often enough, inaction is the choice. Personal, alongside non-personal factors, directly contribute to this decision-making process. Personal factors can include relentless dedication, sustained effort to positively contribute, and even having “lived” the problem under discussion. For example, some self-entitled feminists refuse to consider this same right of entitlement for men. The motive seems quite clear to them; feminism is the fight for women by women. However, as research has shown, making active participation and/or self-entitlement unreachable for some, is a considered motive to not engage in activism at all. Therefore, as Bobel (2007) concludes, these factors often force the conclusion that being an activist and engaging in activism is somewhat out-of-reach.
As to the non-personal factors, Zevallos (2013) mentions that resources such as time, money, and technology, when scarce, strongly affect one’s decision to become a social justice spokesperson. Adding to this argument, Klink, Hielscher, and Haß (2014) affirm that the real problem lays in the incapacity of mobilizing these resources from organizations to action strategies. But possibly, a more heavily considered non-personal intervenor is the political system one lives under. As research has proven, a government that offers its population either many or few political influences’ opportunities, is often faced with high rates of non-activist (Klink, Hielscher, & Haß, 2014).
However, even with all these considered barriers, the issues are too serious to simply be put aside. According to the United Nations Women (2019), 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence. 40.3 million people are victims of human trafficking globally (International Labor Organization, 2016). 800.000 people die yearly due to suicide (World Health Organization, 2019). Between 2030 and 2050, 250.000 additional deaths, per year, will happen if climate change is not properly addressed (World Health Organization, 2019). And, 10.7% of people in the world were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016 (United Nations Food and Agriculture, 2017), even though enough food was produced, that same year, to feed the global population on its whole. The numbers are alarming. But, even with all this information at hand, some still opt to not actively participate in the solution-building process.
All the abstract pro-non-activism arguments presented have one common aspect; they are all solvable, or, at the very least, manageable. Moreover, these statistics can change. But only if society does as well. And, now, more than ever, it is time to understand the advantages of action that outbalance inaction.
So, what is activism? And who are the considered activists?
In post-modern democracies, every person is a possible activist. Although some might have high expectations of what being an activist is and what it takes to merit the label, an activist is a person who, in short, translates his/her private concerns into public issues that ought to be addressed (Klink, Hielscher, & Haß, 2014). Conjunction of actions, from planning campaigns (Zevallos, 2013), advocating for any political cause via any means (Klar & Kasser, 2009) to deeply understanding social conditions (Gorski & Weixia, 2015) and acting on them, while influencing others to do so as well, are all forms of activism. And, arguments that question these statements, ought to be better understood and deeply analyzed.
Although activism is, overall, a great way to drive society towards true success, connections between activism and well-being are not as broadly addressed as the downsides of being a social justice advocate, which can put forth the wrong idea that activism can only hold negative aspects in one’s life. Therefore, in an attempt to influence mobilization, the relationship between activism and well-being needs to be more strongly, and more publicly, presented.
What is well-being?
Well-being can be described, in summary, as an individual understanding of happiness sources and a constant desire, alongside an action, to work on one’s true self. In other words, it is a process of building a positive environment, where one feels as if achieving true potential is possible. Under the concept of well-being, Seligman (2011) explores “PERMA”. P(positive emotions), E(engagement), R(relationships), M(eaning), and A(accomplishment) are the terms that form this acronym. PERMA is extremely important to the full comprehension of the benefits of activism since both concepts integrate components of Hedonia – the experience of positive aspects and satisfaction of desires (Deci & Ryan, 2008) – and Eudaimonia – the presence of meaning and development of one’s potential (Deci & Ryan, 2008). And, therefore, strongly correlate.
How do activism and well-being relate?
According to Ryff (1989), psychological well-being is constituted by self-acceptance, personal growth, relatedness, autonomy, relationships, environmental mastery (competence), and purpose in life. The way activism relates to this model is theoretically simple. Self-acceptance, for instance, is the first step to many in the process of becoming an advocate for any social movement and, in the case of activism, might walk hand-in-hand with the concept of relatedness. The idea behind this notion is that, for most people, when the problem is one that directly affects them or one that, at least, they find easy to self-identify with, they tend to engage in higher rates.
Moreover, personal growth has been strongly associated with Erikson’s (1950) idea of generativity – the concern with fostering the welfare of others. Erikson believed in the strong correlation between this idea of generativity and political activism since the concern with something “bigger than the self” – generativity – (Erikson, 1989) is the number one prerequisite to social movements-engagement.
Other well-being studies consist of the definitions of terms such as, “PERMA”, “Hedonia” and “Eudaimonia”, all of which relate to activism. For example, the acronym PERMA suggests that well-being is constituted by the presence of positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Kasser (2002) argues that the pursuit of goals within activism is intrinsically associated with motivated behavior and creates circumstances that allow greater psychological satisfaction, which can be interpreted as positive emotions. Engagement is actively present in activism since engagement in social movements allows one to participate in decision-making processes at a local, federal, or even global level. Carver and Baird, 1998; Kasser and Ryan, 1993; Ryan et al (1996) put forth the idea that; the higher the importance of community feeling, the higher one’s well-being. Finally, accomplishment comes from the feeling of knowing one did all in his/her power to help. This feeling might vary from person to person and, to some, it might be considered as a way in which activism can backlash. For example, if one dedicates time, money, and energy to social movements and the results are not visible or non-existent, it might make one feel non-importance in his/her actions – which can later lead to burnout.
With this in mind, we can start to dismantle the misconceptions surrounding activism. Such misconceptions, some already briefly introduced, can also be described as the considered barriers to engaging in activism. Examples of such can vary from lack of information regarding a problem, not enough resources, idealization of what activists and activism look like, to political systems, non-appealing campaigns regarding a project, negative effects of being an activist, and social taboos surrounding social movements.
The argument that people now do not engage in activism, as they did in the past, because access to information is limited to those who search for it, could not be further from the truth. As Statista (2019) shows the growing numbers of internet users worldwide from 2005 to 2018, it is reasonable to conclude that structural resources – in this case, technology – have never been more favorable for civic engagement (Anheier, 2013, p. 80). Therefore, it is not a matter of searching for it, but of simply seeing what is already at hand. Technology and forms of activism overlap when the misconception of high-risk activism as the only existing kind, arises. Although some might think that activism calls for active forms of protest – tying oneself to a tree in a protest against deforestation, dedicating time and energy to rallies on a weekly, or even daily, basis – researchers have shown that activism is a simple act of action. For example, this can be either sharing news on the internet or thoughtfully raising awareness among those around you.
Another considered barrier is the feeling of powerlessness. One might feel as if his/her action is not capable of changing the political scenario, for example. However, history has proven that, sometimes, the tail wags the dog. With famous names such as Gandhi, Malala, and Nelson Mandela proving that indeed one person can change the entire course of history, the feeling of powerlessness becomes very abstract. Mass mobilizations start with only one strike and Greta Thunberg is the perfect example to explain it. Passionate about climate change and willing to do the possible to have the issue properly addressed, the young women have already inspired millions to stand up against government actions.
Yet another highly addressed barrier is the experience of burnout amongst activists. However, as this article has shown, the relationships between activism and well-being are endless. Research on the negative effects of activism often relies on the stress that activists face. According to them, these can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression, health problems, such as high blood pressure, increased procrastination, and so on. However, society is faced with stressors daily – with these varying from loud noises and traffic to the loss of a loved one, financial obligations, and educational systems. So, if these stressors are not considered barriers to moving on with life, why would activism-burnout be one? This leads to the belief that the real issue is not the downsides of activism, but the unwillingness to act.