Choose the Activism That Won’t Make You Miserable

The best way of trying to change the world is the one that will offer you happiness too.

An illustration of a woman holding a megaphone with rotten things coming out of it.
Illustration by Jan Buchczik

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The extent of the mental-health crisis in the United States today—especially among young adults—is undeniable. The problem started well before the coronavirus pandemic. A survey conducted from 2005 to 2018 of more than 86,000 adolescents found a startling increase in symptoms of depression after 2010. According to an analysis of Pew Research Center data, the most dramatic rise has been among young, liberal white women, more than 50 percent of whom reported having been told they have a mental-health condition.

Among the competing explanations for this pattern is the assertion that all the contentious issues around us—climate change, racism, gun violence—are leading young adults into depression and anxiety. But it may not be the crises themselves that are causing despair so much as young people’s typical responses to them. Protest and political activism have exploded among Gen Z and younger Millennials. Although these may seem like productive ways to address negative emotions from these social problems, activism itself can increase unhappiness. It can provoke anger and hatred toward others, and create a win-lose mentality that leads to disappointment.

The right conclusion is not to become apathetic about the world’s ills to protect one’s mental health and well-being. It is to change one’s perspective about how to help alleviate those ills.

The tendency of many Gen Z and younger Millennials—people born from the 1990s onward—to choose protest as a first resort has given rise to the label “activist generation.” A 2021 survey of some 10,000 Gen Zers showed that 70 percent are involved in a political or social cause; in another study that year, only 19 percent said they would work for a company that doesn’t share their values. This age cohort is also among those most likely to boycott a product or company.

Some would argue that today’s problems merit greater activism than those of previous generations, but my Gen Z daughter offered a different view: “We have been conscripted as child soldiers in the Baby Boomers’ culture war.” Touché.

Whatever accounts for the rise in activism, research shows that it’s connected to this generation’s psychological distress. Last year, scholars studying climate-change activists found an association between their activism and short-term depressive symptoms. Obviously, the causality could run in either direction: The activism may lead to depression, or the depression to activism. Or, in fact, they may be mutually reinforcing.

The best available answer comes from activists themselves. For a 2021 study in the Journal of Adolescent Research, researchers interviewed college students about the effects of their activism on their well-being. Although nearly a third of the students believed that their advocacy work improved their well-being, 60 percent reported harm to their mental health. “There’s been times that at the end of the day, I’ll come to bed and I’ll just cry,” one interviewee said, “because I really don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into.”

Several mechanisms may be at work here. One is that the nature of much activism involves anger and contempt for people on the “wrong side” of the issue; that sort of hostility toward others can be psychologically harmful for those who feel it. Today’s activism tends to encourage us to see people in a binary way: good or bad, right or wrong. Scholars have observed that this leads people to show disgust or moral condemnation toward opponents, or engage in othering behaviors.

Psychologists have demonstrated how these attitudes can lead to guilt, shame, and anxiety. And this is hardly a new idea: The fifth-century Indian Buddhist sage Buddhaghosa argued that one who hates is “like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember … and so first burns himself.”

Even for those who manage to disagree with others without hating them (and thus hurting themselves), political activism commonly leads to a sense of futility. Researchers studying prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong found that during periods of protest, people involved had elevated states of psychological and social well-being. But a year later, after protesters had failed in their goals, their well-being was, on average, lower than that of their non-activist peers. A good deal of social and political activism is zero-sum, and admits only two possible outcomes: winning or losing. When these causes become an uphill battle, as commonly happens, losing is likely. Then the disappointment can be crushing.

None of this is to say that activism is a mistake; that is for each person to decide. But much of the data present a challenge for people who want to stay engaged without sacrificing their mental health—as well as for people in positions of political leadership and in academia, who often encourage young people to be involved in important causes.

A compromise might be available through minimizing activism’s most psychologically harmful elements: hatred and defeat. A shift in perspective—from winning to helping—can address both problems. This could mean a switch from protesting homelessness to providing services for people experiencing homelessness—for instance, by volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen—or from marching against the president to giving people a ride to the polling station. Focus on what you can do to ameliorate a situation rather than simply demonstrating your opposition to it.

An enormous body of evidence shows that the right sort of volunteering leads unambiguously to greater happiness. A 2022 paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that older adults who volunteered reported greater life satisfaction—but with an important qualification that would certainly have a bearing on younger people’s mental health. These adults found that their morale improved after they performed more frequent nonpolitical volunteer work (such as helping with social services), but that it was lower after more frequent political activity (such as party work).

Another study of a 2004 Texas survey showed that participants who had volunteered even once to help others—again, in nonpolitical causes—experienced improvements in mental health, physical health, life satisfaction, and social well-being. The type of voluntary work can take many forms depending on one’s concerns: tutoring kids, helping build homes, visiting people in prison. The important thing to note is that the benefactor benefits too.

I’m not arguing that people should abandon politics and lapse into apathy. But at the very least, we need to balance fighting with loving, including loving more indiscriminately. In contrast to the way activism can divide “us” from “them” and allies from adversaries, volunteering tends to expand the allies by connecting us to those who need us, regardless of their views and beliefs. And by helping the people who are right in front of us, we succeed in the goal of helping make a better world. In the Mishnah Sanhedrin of the Jewish Talmud, it is written that “he who saves a single soul saves a whole world.” The profound truth of this for our lives is revealed when our actions affect another person in ways that show us how connected we are to one another, and perhaps even to the divine.

No amount of sharing rage at the state of the world can make us happy. But any amount of sharing love with someone who needs it may help us find the happiness we seek.