Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which means across America many of us are reflecting on those titans of history who managed, through personal courage and conviction, to make the world a better place. What were they like as people? How did they motivate themselves to do such extraordinary work? What price did they pay for their activism?
Given the tragic end of Dr. King's life and the immense challenges faced by the likes of Nelson Mandela (27 years in prison) and Abraham Lincoln (major depression), it's easy to see these individuals as tragic heroes. They accomplished so much, but personally suffered greatly.
Few of us will have their impact, of course, but their lives nonetheless inform our own attempts to be better people. Thinking of the lives of such heroes as full of suffering might dissuade us from doing our own small bit to advance justice and minimize suffering. Happiness and activism just don't go together, you might conclude.
Only there's one big problem with this line of thinking: new research suggests it's dead wrong. Happy people don't get lost in their own private bliss and do less for their communities. Instead, personal joy is associated with working harder to better the world.
Happiness doesn't make you self-centered.
The opposite of the tortured activist stereotype is the popular image of the self-absorbed self-help fan. Obsessed with their personal wellness, those who chase happiness are sometimes accused of being stuck in their own rose-colored bubble and ignoring the suffering around them.
But when Georgetown psychologist Kostadin Kushlev recently ran a study to test the relationship between people's happiness and their engagement with the world at large, the findings contradicted those popular notions.
The research took place after the violent white nationalist rallies that took place in 2017 and featured tiki torch-wielding racists chanting "Jews will not replace us." Following these appalling incidents, the research team recruited a group of student volunteers and measured both their level of happiness, and their plans to take action to oppose the rallies.
Were the happiest students blissed out and oblivious to the trouble around them? Quite the opposite.
"After analyzing the results, researchers found that generally happier students showed more concern about the rallies and were more willing to take part in current action to help the affected community than less happy people," reports UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Two follow-up experiments confirmed the results when looking at other areas of community engagement, like environmentalism or fighting corruption.
The researchers hypothesize this is because the happier you are the more energy you tend to have, meaning those who feel positive simply have more of themselves to give to others (a position others research supports).
There is no downside to happiness.
What's the takeaway here? According Kushlev the cheerful message of the study is that there is no contraction between personal joy and fighting to make the world a better place. You won't make yourself complacent by making yourself happier.
"There's a naïve belief out there that maybe we shouldn't be focused on making people happier or increasing their well-being because they won't be motivated to do anything. But our findings suggest the opposite: Being happier links to more action, not less," Kushlev told Greater Good.
So when you reflect on the phenomenal contribution of MLK today, remember the price he paid for his activism, but don't think you must choose between personal happiness and world-changing work. Doing anything hard will have its difficult moments, but chasing your own well-being will help you work harder to improve the well-being of others.