Regardless of how people feel about the results of impeachment hearings or primary elections, these are unsettled times. Uncertainty dominates every field, from the impact of technology to the value of college. Malaise blankets the nation. Personal unrest and alienation are a kind of virus attacking the soul.
Troubled times encourage a search for someone to blame, but anger and blame are unproductive emotions. They unleash destructive impulses, fueling a vicious cycle of more anger and blame. Negativity is so easy; it is easier to be negative than positive, and it can even make the cynics look smarter. Negativity often hides feelings of helplessness, which make people turn passive and depressed.
The antidote to malaise is taking action to bring about positive change. Any step to chip away at big, seemingly intractable problems and to contribute time and effort to a cause larger than oneself produces energy and even joy. It replaces uncertainty with direction, and unrest with a sense of purpose and meaning. Americans should be encouraged to experience the optimism of activism. We need Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign translated to another sphere.
When I co-conceived the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative about 15 years ago, our goal was to engage accomplished leaders at the top of their companies in organizing new ventures to solve big intractable global problems. Over 500 fellows later, we see positive results not only from their promising innovations but also from their more optimistic, can-do attitude toward life. When faced with setbacks, they are more likely to get moving than sit still.
Some of the happiest people I know are working on the most difficult problems. A physician working with terminally ill children finds sadness overwhelmed by the energizing feeling that she is giving them quality of life for whatever time they have. A corporate lawyer feels invigorated by his involvement in helping at-risk students stay in school and graduate. A former banker exudes youthful exuberance as he travels the world advocating for a World Bank for oceans to fund projects addressing this vital aspect of climate change.
Turning whines into works can occur at any life stage; indeed, it is striking how young people are activists, in effect staying out of trouble by causing it. Parkland students who survived a tragic school shooting turned their grief into a cause, healing by doing — they organized the March for Our Lives, a national march and ongoing campaign pushing for new gun control laws. High school students start ventures to help the homeless by starting enterprises employing homeless women making blanket coats, or to grow nutritious food in community gardens, seeing a side benefit in lowering carbon emissions. Project 351 in Massachusetts mobilizes eighth-graders, one for each of the Commonwealth’s 351 communities, who in turn organize service projects with their peers. Research by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that young people of college age who have engaged in civilian national service are more likely to be active citizens, voting at higher rates, running for office, and rising to leadership. They feel they can make a difference.
There is abundant reporting about the tragedies (opioid epidemics and suicide rates) and political consequences for the people left behind in smaller cities and rural areas. Hand-wringing could be replaced with activism here too. A team led by an academic and an international lawyer is working with foundations on a campaign to bring broadband to those fading communities, and with it better education and employment possibilities. A venture capitalist is working with entrepreneurs to locate coding and software centers in isolated towns. Such efforts have the virtue of raising the spirits of remaining residents, making it easier to retain (or attract) young people, and providing solutions for problems that divide America.
Social purpose activism performs many functions. It is a way to solve problems, and a cure for the anomie of perilous times, which can produce new social capital — the bonds among people that open opportunities. People might bowl alone, but they raise money and create community action programs together. In Montana cattle country, ranchers drive from remote locations to participate in spaghetti dinners raising money for a family in need of support during catastrophic illnesses. In a Massachusetts suburb, a group of moms meets over coffee to map a course of action to connect with national anti-trafficking organizations and get massage parlors removed from suburban malls.
When national is ugly, local can be beautiful. Small, smart innovations can produce meaningful social impact. That’s good for an unsettled nation, and it’s good for the people who take action.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time.”