Count Your Joys!

Count Your Joys!

Why an Animal Activist Life is the Very Best Life

This summer we shared two posts discussing how emotionally and socially challenging animal activism can be. You’ll find them here and here.

The interesting thing is how many activists persevere despite these challenges. Some of this surely comes from a desire not to abandon animals in need, but there’s something else going on as well:

Hillary & Billy

Hillary & Billy

We, as individuals, get a lot from our activism.

Here’s the thing: in my work, I am lucky enough to spend a good chunk of my time talking to activists, academics, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and other creative, values-driven souls. Many contact me because their work or personal life isn’t going the way they’d like. Either they’re not productive enough, or they’re not making enough money, or they want a different job (or a job). Sometimes, the challenge is getting along with family, friends, and others with different values. (Sound familiar?)

These are serious problems, and often, urgent. But they are better problems to have than these:

“My life lacks meaning.”
“My work is pointless.”
“My work is unethical.”

These are problems that are endemic, and maybe epidemic, among non-activists. They can suck a lot of the joy and pride out of life; and sufferers often cope by shutting down the best parts of themselves—the creative, empathetic, and optimistic parts—just so they can get through the day.

Most activists, in contrast, find a superabundance of meaning and importance in their life and work; and that’s one of activism’s great gifts to us. Here are some others:

The best human friends.
I truly believe that animal activists are the best people—the most visionary, caring, and courageous. Also, they tend to be the most creative, committed, generous, funny, and fun. And, finally, they often are the most self-aware and committed to fairness, equality, and non-exploitation.

Not all activists have their act together, of course, and even great people have their “off” days. Nevertheless, I feel inspired and damned lucky to be part of this community.

The best nonhuman friends.
Like probably every animal rights activist, I’ve always been an animal lover; and my life has been immeasurably enhanced by my relationships with dogs and other nonhumans. Animal activism has deepened these experiences by teaching me how relate to nonhumans with more sensitively and on terms of more equality; and it’s also broadened my experience to include far more species, including especially farmed animals. What a gift.

Skills and Growth.
“Sharing” and “supporting” are part of the activist DNA, which is one reason activism is such an amazing milieu in which to learn new skills. Great mentorship is always out there and despite the competition for scarce funds, in my experience, activist organizations tend to work together and support each other far more than non-activist ones.

Also, whatever skills you have, and whatever contribution you seek to make, you’ll find a way to use those skills and make that contribution in animal activism. You can work locally, regionally, or globally; in partnership with nearly any type of activist, community, business, art, education, or other group; and use nearly any communications, digital, research, analytical, political, educational, or other skills you have or want to learn.

Oh, and you’ll also get the opportunity to make an impact. (that “meaning” thing again!)

Nothing beats activism!

Activism requires us to be wise, and teaches us to be wiser. Many of the wisest and most influential people who are alive or have ever lived were activists who succeeded in changing their society’s status quo and improving life for us all.

“Wisdom” encompasses so much, including the abilities to see the “whole picture,” forge connections, handle complexities, and integrate externalities. Also, to see the world both for what it is and how it could be. And also to understand what makes individuals and societies tick, and how to influence both.

Wisdom is its own reward, but it’s also one of the great gifts of growing old; and, at age 55, I can personally tell you that that’s a very big deal. I don’t know anyone who’s really enthusiastic about ongoing physical decrepitude followed by death, but for me and many others, the ability to help others in ways we couldn’t when we were younger is a huge compensation.

A Legacy.
We are so lucky to be part of one of the early waves of animal activists! History will celebrate our vision, courage, and achievements, just as we celebrate those of the abolitionists, suffragists, and others who came before us. And make no mistake, there are achievements: in the past week alone, we’ve seen a major, mainstream fast food chain announce its first dairy alternative and the CEO of a major corporation get fired for abusing a dog behavior that—let’s face it—a generation or two ago wouldn’t have even been newsworthy.

We did that!

In “Letters to a Young Activist,” Todd Gitlin writes about, “the almost sinful pleasure of being right, to see people surge into your ranks, to feel that your analysis penetrates to the heart of things.” I feel that pleasure every time our movement scores a victory—which it is doing more and more often.

And even if your individual achievements seem minor, have no fear: you are indeed making a contribution. As the brilliant (and animal-loving) George Eliot wrote at the end of “Middlemarch,” her novel examining the fate of small-town activists in provincial England*, “That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

And, finally,

A Clean Conscience.
Can’t really put a price on that, can we?

If you’re not getting the above benefits from your activism, something’s amiss. Usually there are two causes (other than personal issues and poverty, the latter of which I’ll address in a future article) of activist unhappiness:

1) You’re hanging around the wrong crowd. The defeatists and sourpusses may mean well, but avoid getting sucked into their negativity. Or perhaps you’re being exploited or dominated or otherwise mistreated—don’t accept that from anyone, no matter how illustrious they are or how worthy their goal. Or, perhaps you’re part of a group that just can’t get its act together to accomplish anything. Who needs that kind of pointless frustration? Or,

2) You’re in a situation where you’re not learning, or growing, or leveraging your strengths.

There are a zillion fun, happy, non-exploitative, effective animal rights/vegan groups out there that will appreciate your talents and put them to good use. Find one.

And take a moment to celebrate all the wonderful things you’ve created, for others and yourself, via your activism.

Did I miss any of the benefits to activism?

*The book is excellent, but if you’re not into monumental Victorian tomes, the BBC miniseries is also great.

Hillary Rettig is the author of “The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way” and “The 7 Secrets of the Prolific,” the latter a bestseller in Amazon’s productivity category. Hillary teaches online classes, and offers discounted productivity and time management coaching to activists. For more information about Hillary and her work, along with many free articles, visit: Hillary always welcomes your emails at

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