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The Power of Protest

Speaking out can be good for your health

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

The hundreds of thousands of people (including many environmentalists) who marched worldwide last fall and winter to protest U.S. war preparations were at first depicted in the media as a small bunch of marginalized malcontents. But a new study shows that though protesters may be depressed about the state of the world, their collective action actually improves their physical health and mental outlook. Those malcontents, it turns out, are really rather happy individuals.

John Drury, a professor of social psychology at Britain’s University of Sussex, conducted a series of in-depth interviews with activists and discovered that involvement in political demonstrations boosted feelings of empowerment, connectedness, and well-being. "Positive experiences engender positive emotions like joy and contentment," says Drury. "These emotions are not only psychologically good but they are linked with the absence of depression, anxiety, and stress."

Of course, people don’t protest to improve their mental health. Drury, who’s studied social movements for ten years, says there are many reasons citizens get involved: "They feel it’s necessary, they’re angry, they feel an obligation, they think change is possible," he says.

He notes that the recent demonstrations underscore the difference between a "physical crowd" in a mall, for example, and the "psychological crowd" at protest rallies. "We all know the unpleasant experience of being in a crowd of shoppers. But the same physical proximity can be experienced as enjoyable when we identify with that crowd." When people engage in large-scale protests, says Drury, they sense they can change history. "Collective action can therefore be a life-changing, uplifting, and life-enhancing experience."

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