Science & Spirit: Optimizing Activism

International Indigenous Gathering 2012
International Indigenous Gathering 2012

In this article, guest author ZAINAB AMADAHY  explores the power of positivity as a force of  transformation in the world.  Here at Occupy Love, we are always looking for love in all the wrong places, and finding it.  This is an era of  unimaginable crisis, and  unimagined possibility.  It’s time to start creating the new world, that we know is possible. A world that works for everyone and all life. Nothing less will do.   Be sure to check out Zainab’s brand new book, Wielding the Force: The Science of Social Justice, which explores emerging science and its relevance to social justice, activism and community organizing.  Thank you, Zainab,  for articulating and exploring this important subject with such clarity.  Big love, Velcrow Ripper


On a panel discussing the relationship between “Love and Decolonization” I once spoke about protocols and ceremonies that are used by Indigenous communities in struggle. These are practiced to keep spirits high, deepen connections among community members and maintain focus on honourable and just outcomes. I noted that such practices allow people to benefit from “good mind” and that there was an increasing amount of mainstream science that demonstrated many advantages to such activities.

Because ceremonies allow participants to give thanks, vision an optimistic future, feel grounded on the land, connect to ancestors, feel responsibility to coming generations and cooperate together, they generate wellness. More than that, they increase the likelihood that communities will achieve their many-faceted goals.

Mainstream science now understands that cultivating thoughts and feelings of generosity, gratitude, optimism, hope, compassion and cooperation are good for your health. Such mindsets help your body heal from stress, heighten immunity, accelerate healing, enhance creativity, facilitate problem-solving and much more.

Of course, this mindset also impacts your relationships, affecting friends, family and co-workers in positive ways. We also know that the more time you spend in an optimistic mindset, the more your body, including your brain, literally restructures itself so it becomes easier to shift your thoughts to optimism.

What’s even more exciting to social justice activists is the impact these mindsets have on our work. New research devoted to assessing the impact of corporate leadership practices indicates that when employees maintain positive and optimistic mindsets the company’s desired outcomes are more likely to be achieved.

Now of course we’re all concerned about applying science to manipulate people in a way that enables others to profit from their work; work that may contribute to the destruction of the environment, increased consumerism and the depletion of resources.
It’s also important to understand that encouraging positive mindsets, even if it positively impacts individual wellbeing, will not resolve the fundamental problem of a financial system that is unsustainable and anti-life. Yet, as activists, we can still learn from the science and apply it in a way that is consistent with our values.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that those suffering from a mental or physical illness need only shift their thinking to become well and effective. That is too simplistic. All life forms on the Earth and beyond are inter-connected and inter-dependent and there are many environmental, social and historical factors that impact our wellbeing. Shifts in mindset can only count for so much. Nevertheless shifts in thinking can create powerful change in our lives and communities.

Also, these findings don’t suggest that negative/unpleasant emotions have no useful purpose. Feelings like anger, fear, sadness, grief and others have a role to play in a healthy emotional life. So-called negative emotions should never be denied, ignored or repressed. In community organizing these feelings can keep you realistic, grounded and safe. The question is, should they motivate you as an activist?


Studies have shown that ‘the carrot is more effective than the stick’ when it comes to motivating people to be and do their best. Research looking at how corporate leadership can motivate workers concludes that “negative emotional attractors”, like creating an environment where everyone fears being fired, will only work for so long. Similarly, we can expect that people motivated by “The planet is dying!” and “Eat the rich!” will only be inspired for so long. We can further expect them to burn out faster as fear and anger invoke the stress reaction, which takes a heavy toll on the body.

However, not every carrot will do the trick. Studies show that, once survival needs are met and a reasonable quality of life assured, even financial incentives (like bonuses and raises) are ineffective at motivating people to work harder, smarter or with more creativity. And none of these motivators generates cooperation.

PEA’s (positive emotional attractors) are far more likely to achieve desired results. An example of a PEA is encouraging workers to see themselves as contributing to some greater good, such as reminding your “team” that selling solar systems helps the planet. Or telling folks that a percentage of company profits supports cancer research.

PEA’s produce improved AND sustainable outcomes. People work harder, are more creative, more adaptable and achieve better results. Additionally, folks who motivate others with PEA’s benefit from all the physical indicators of wellbeing that optimistic mindsets engender.

What this suggests to activists is that motivating each other with the vision of a better world is far more effective than manipulating fears about worst-case scenarios. The more we can create optimistic visions and role model our values of cooperation, kindness and generosity, the more likely we are to stay motivated and inspire others.

Pro-social emotions, thoughts and actions inspire and motivate more of the same. This results in more optimism, generosity, cooperation, compassion, kindness, productivity, creativity and an awareness of inter-connectedness. With a mere shift in mindset we can all benefit from an upwardly moving spiral of cooperative, kind and effective people. And before you know it, we’ll be living in that better world we created together.

ZAINAB AMADAHY is an author, community organizer and educator. Among her publications are “Indigenous Peoples and Black Peoples in Canada: Settlers or Allies” for Breaching the Colonial Contract: Anti-Colonialism in the US and Canada. She also contributed to Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision and Community Activism and authored the feminist science fiction novel Moons of Palmares. Zainab is a frequent contributor to and Her latest publication, Wielding the Force: The Science of Social Justice, explores emerging science and its relevance to social justice, activism and community organizing. For more information about Zainab’s work:


2 Replies to “Science & Spirit: Optimizing Activism”

  1. What a wonderful essay, full of clarity and hope! Thank you for summarizing the research and showing us how a positive mindset can help us heal the world!

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