Positive Advocacy is the application of positive psychology and the psychology of self-change to the field of animal advocacy. Unlike positive thinking, positive psychology is a well-researched field, based on the scientific study of the strengths and qualities that enable us to flourish. It rests on the hypothesis that we have a deep need to live a meaningful and rewarding existence, to nurture our humanity and to experience our daily activities to the fullest (love, work, play, and of course… animal advocacy).
FAQ answers by Laurent Carrer, M.S. Psychology
Q: What is positive psychology, and why should animal advocates care about it?
Positive psychology was founded by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., past president of the American Psychological Association, and self-professed natural pessimist. Dr. Seligman discovered that happiness is more a skill to be cultivated than an innate gift—while there is a genetic component to our experiencing this emotion, it is far from determining. Seligman chose to focus his research on human resilience, strength and happiness rather than pathology, abnormality and poor performance, the usual targets of psychological studies.
His findings show that to experience wellbeing, we need to create positive emotions, be engaged in our activities, feel a sense of accomplishment and develop harmonious relationships1. These recommendations can all be translated into practical measures applicable to advocacy activities, and this website will explore how to do this.
Q: What specific benefits can be obtained from this approach? Could it be used, for instance, to counter the stressful nature of animal rescue work?
A: I find this discipline’s conclusions are relevant to several aspects of advocacy work. Seligman argues, and backs it up with scientific data, that individuals suffering from PTSD can be taught resilience to not only learn from their traumas but actually thrive because of them. Happiness psychologist Shawn Achor, Ph.D. from Harvard, author and long-time proponent of positive psychology, provides research showing that by changing our perception of stress, we can change its physical manifestation2. I think we can all see how this can be a helpful skill for activists who have witnessed traumatic events, possibly while working undercover in industrial farms or slaughterhouses, or caring for abused animals in shelters.
Q: Can it help improve our efficiency as advocates?
Only when we choose to believe that we live in a world where challenges can be overcome, our behavior matters, and change is possible can we summon all our drive, energy, and emotional and intellectual resources to make that change happen.
Happiness is not about being blind to the negatives in our environment; it’s about believing we have the power to do something about them.
A: Dr. Achor shows that the key quality of the most productive employees (read “advocates” for the purpose of this FAQ) is not education, GPA, IQ, social intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ), but rather, the choice to emphasize positive leadership and happiness. He also makes a challenging statement: the reality we experience is essentially a matter of perception. So, in order to experience happiness and success, we need to create a positive reality that makes space for them2. He calls the ability to create such reality, positive genius.
Some may, at first, find this type of advice hard to accept. After all, how many times have you heard “rational” individuals claim sole ownership of reality and define it for you: “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist… and life sucks, just look around you!” After which they point at everything that’s wrong with the world and the people who inhabit it. However, with some study, practice and an open mind, they can start accessing another significant part of reality and focus on it for greater happiness and desire to change the horrible things they were complaining about. For those interested in achieving positive genius, Achor suggests a 5-step process. We’ll mention only the first step here, with more to be explored later:
1. Recognize there are multiple realities and select the one that leads to positive growth. In other words, change the object of your focus. One simple technique to help you do this is the gratitude exercise. Every evening, train your brain to scan your day for at least three events you’re grateful for. It could be as small as hearing your loving cat’s purr, reading that your local school’s cafeteria started offering a vegetarian menu option, finding out a new law protecting the animals was passed, learning that a friend decided to try Meatless Mondays or subscribing to a new exciting website like, let’s say, The Positive Animal (oh, you have superb taste!). Or it could have nothing to do with activism, it could just be that someone nice held the door for you or smiled kindly at you. This exercise primes our positive pump and, progressively, trains us to detect more and more reasons to be happy. Those causes for happiness were always there, but essentially ignored by our brain, which was busy paying disproportionate attention to negative happenings and/or imaginings, a phenomenon we sometimes call the Tetris effect—to be explained later.
Q: What other elements of positive psychology could be useful to animal advocates?
A: Another important aspect of this discipline is understanding one’s character strengths and having a plan to actually use them on a consistent basis. While we usually know what our main forms of intelligence are (athletic, spatial, musical, mathematical, linguistic, etc.), it can be useful to take a validated professional test to unveil our deep character strengths. And we’re in luck; one is made available for free on a website created by the VIA Institute on Character, an international, scientific non-profit organization that advances the science and practice of these character strengths. Their survey, which rates a person on 24 strengths (perseverance, honesty, hope, curiosity…), is an excellent way to start an introspective journey into how we can improve our advocacy. It is available in over 30 languages, which is perfect for our foreign readers who may want to share these concepts with friends at home—by clicking here, you will find a box that lets you switch languages under Register to Get Started.
As we become more adept at using these strengths, we may stop trying to fit into an “advocate mold” compelling us to behave in a certain way that doesn’t necessarily suit us. I believe the happiest, most efficient activists are the ones who know who they are and decide to express their individuality. When I decided to create The Positive Animal, I put into action my top 5 strengths: Appreciation of excellence and beauty, Gratitude, Creativity, Humor and Love—I trust they are present throughout the site.
Q: Are you the first to combine psychology and animal advocacy?
A: No, but so far I have found no organization or thought-leader focusing on the importance of happiness and using one’s character strengths as an activist. Some authors have explored other areas of psychology related to advocacy.
Nick Cooney, for instance, a long-time animal activist who’s read extensively in the field of social psychology, has written several excellent books on the psychology of influence and artful persuasion. And he does touch upon the importance of optimism and smiling, but more as a rapport-building technique than as a self-development tool. His well-researched approach will help any advocate become a more efficient convincer by understanding how people make decisions to act or not.3
Q: What about individuals who may be facing challenges as they try to adopt a vegan diet, particularly if they have been long-time meat eaters and want tips on how to stick with their healthier program?
…over 40% of what we do is determined not by decisions but by habits. This suggests that we can change a huge part of our lives just by eliminating bad habits and creating good ones instead.
A: This is where the psychology of self-change comes in. Much has been written on habit formation and change. One expert on these topics is Braco Pobric. His latest book teaches the importance of habits and how to replace the ones not working in our favor. He uses data from new research showing that dopamine is essential for habit formation and how we can use this to motivate us.4
John Norcross, Ph.D., is also a master of change. He has produced a 90-day 5-step program scientifically designed to help us make new decisions and stick to them5.
Finally, there are also some solid studies on why people give up vegetarianism, and we can draw some important lessons from them to prevent such a thing from happening. We’ll explore all these venues in more detail in future issues.
Q: Couldn’t it be said that this type of advocacy ignores problems?
A: Positive advocacy is not a naïve philosophy, it’s actually one of the most pragmatic I can think of. Its proponents, while being aware of injustice, cruelty and what leaves to be desired in society, choose to focus instead on what is working and the successful strategies that are moving the world in a positive direction. They believe in their ability to effect change by applying their key character strengths, supporting their fellow positive advocates and using science-backed techniques. This attitude, in turn, chips away at frustration and anger and fires up happiness and a desire to improve the world. Make no mistake, developing positive brawn is just like strengthening physical muscles: it requires a strategy, focus and steady work over a long period of time. After all, nobody in their right mind would expect to look like vegan weightlifter Robert Cheeke by working out two or three times a week for a couple or months and then stopping. Any skill worth mastering requires commitment, and positive genius is no different; but it does get easier with time, some benefits are felt quickly, and the results, like those of physical exercise, are rewarding, life-changing and they feeeeel good!
- Seligman, Martin (2011-4-5). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Kindle Edition.
- Achor, Shawn (2013-09-10). Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Cooney, Nick (2010-09-20). Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. Lantern Books. Kindle Edition.
- Pobric, Braco (2014-07-21). Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits. High Impact Consulting, Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.
- Norcross, John C. (2012-12-25). Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.