The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Choose the activism that won’t make you miserable

By Arthur C. Brooks

11 May 2023 · 5 min read

Editor's Note

Activism tends to divide "us" from "them" and allies from adversaries. This column argues that activism can also lead to feelings of futility and defeat. The Atlantic has a better idea.

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.

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