Can you be a happy animal activist?
In 2018 I attended the 2018 Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles. Over 1300 people attended and experienced a vast array of speakers, workshops, stalls, and live music.
The event was well catered for, with vegans enjoying the luxury of not having to check every meal for ingredients. The premiere of the Australian documentary, Dominion, was screened to over six hundred people and, although challenging, resulted in people strategising about how they could share this film with the world.
In short, it was like living in a little vegan bubble for four days. As we neared the end, there was a sense of sadness as people faced re-entering a world which is not-yet vegan, with its everyday triggers about animal use.
What is it about these large, vegan, communal events that we find so rewarding, and yet are accompanied by a sense of sadness and depression as they draw to a close? As we re-enter the non-vegan world, our hearts sink as sometimes even our families don’t understand, and resist the vegan message.
These events remind us of the world we want to create; one where there is no animal exploitation and we can live healthy and happy lives with a low footprint. We meet others who share our values, and we’re inspired by the achievements of a wide range of initiatives. We feel part of a growing community of people who, even if we don’t speak with personally, remind us that we belong and together are creating a kinder world.
But this sense of belonging and mutual understanding is not only reserved for vegans. Religious, sports, or interest groups can feel a similar sense of community and shared identity over time. What are the qualities of these social encounters that make us feel so good? If we can find out what the ingredients are, perhaps we can create them outside of festivals and conferences?
Lessons from the Happiness Studies
The longest-standing research into adult development has gathered data over seventy-five years, and is known as the Happiness Studies (2008). It selected 724 young men from two groups; the first, Harvard University students and the second, boys from one of the most disadvantaged areas of Boston. Every two years since 1938, through in-depth interviews, medical examinations, and observation of their social networks, their lives were tracked over the decades. The enduring finding, regardless of social background, wealth, or life circumstance, is that “good relationships keep us healthier and happier”. The results indicate that loneliness is not only crippling for the sufferer, but directly impacts physical health and brain function. Happiness is directly related to the quality of our social networks, and being around people we feel understand and care for us is essential for wellbeing.
Good relationships depend on the quality of our interpersonal communication and a self-awareness of how we impact others. This requires sophisticated skills which may be hard to draw upon when we are highly distressed. For example, our knowledge about animal cruelty can make certain conversations very challenging.
The frustration isn’t limited to conversations with non-vegans. When we join the Animal Rights Movement we feel that we belong and have a shared purpose. So, it is demoralising when we come across in-fighting since it’s not only our sense of belonging and happiness at stake, but something that binds us all together – the welfare of animals.
Steps Towards Being a Happy Activist
1. The Importance of Self-Care
Self-care is a term well known in animal advocacy, not only for those in front-line animal protection, but because daily reminders of systematised animal cruelty is confronting for us all. Seeing daily reminders of live sheep trade, the Lakesland chicken rescue, the culling of kangaroos, or watching documentaries like Dominion or Earthlings has a cumulative negative impact on our wellbeing.
Without the tools to process our grief and despair, we can easily become angry and negative, believing the world to be a very dark place. Many advocates under these circumstances withdraw from the world, further adding to their sense of desperation and alienation. We then withdraw from the very things that contribute to our happiness and wellbeing – being part of a community of people we value and feel valued by.
There are some things I believe we must do to regularly resource ourselves (Vystopia, Mann 2018)
- Practice good nutrition.
- Exercise regularly.
- Relax and have fun.
- Develop a positive mindset.
- Learn to meditate.
- Minimise stress.
- Gather support.
There is also a Support Sheet you can access, where a team of psychologists including myself have shared tools and techniques to help you deal with the anguish of knowing about the content of films like Dominion. It is also valuable for anyone who is feeling traumatised about animal cruelty, and finding it hard to process their grief and trauma. You can find it at: http://www.dominionmovement.com/self-care
2. Effective Communication
To be good at relationships we must get our own house in order. We have to become acutely aware of the effect we have on other people and their needs, as well as setting boundaries with people and educating them how to treat us. This requires us to:
• Listen carefully to other’s comments and objections.
• Ask questions to clarify their comments.
• Focus on the conversation, not the person. Blaming or shaming aren’t productive towards changing someone’s mind.
• Be aware that people’s reactiveness may a response to new information, shame, or guilt.
• Learn where your own boundaries are, and know it’s okay to step away and continue the conversation another time.
3. Become Part of a Community
If our happiness is linked to our sense of belonging and shared identity, then it’s important that we join groups we feel we can contribute to. Whilst online groups can be supportive, real connections are made when people get together and share a common purpose. This is known as a superordinate goal and the concept is well known in sociology. A superordinate goal transcends the individual goals of those involved, but brings them together to achieve something essential for their survival. Many vegans would argue that the only way to survive in a not-yet vegan world is to work towards it becoming vegan.
To benefit from and contribute to group endeavours, you must have exquisite self-care. So much of the in-fighting occurs because people are in pain, and have set beliefs around what must happen for us to free animals. By investing in your self-care, improving the quality of your communication, and understanding others, you go a long way to becoming a welcomed member in the community and add to others’ wellbeing.
Will We See a Vegan World in Our Lifetime?
When we attend animal rights events we often feel inspired that the movement is growing, and we are seeing real change. To keep that positive energy, resource yourself daily with the knowledge that the vegan movement is gathering momentum. Every day we hear about new ranges of vegan produce popping up in supermarkets, and industries realising the unsustainable nature of animal farming. Elmhurst Dairy in Queens, New York, the ninety-year old dairy has switched to plant-based milk production, and is a reflection of changing demand. WeWork, who have banned meat being eaten in the workplace, is another example of veganism growing, and it’s these stories we need to share and rejoice in.
So a vegan world is coming and we must all play our part in ushering it in. Despite all the horrors we read about, it is still possible to be a happy advocate, and the chances of this happening are greatly enhanced when we become part of a community of people we value and feel part of. The Happiness Studies have much to teach our movement as well as the world at large. Happiness comes from something beyond ourselves, and is to be found in communities of people all working towards something they collectively value, and which benefits everyone.
FOWLER J. H., & CHRISTAKIS, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337, a2338.
This article was first published in the November/December 2018 issue of The Australian Vegan Magazine. For access this magazine, visit: https://www.tavm.com.au/