It’s common for a recounting of one’s switch to veganism to be punctuated by at least one “I just felt so good after!” Indeed, if my transition weren’t more than seven years in the past, and thus more than a little fuzzy, I’d probably say the same thing. And many vegans will say, long after adopting a vegan lifestyle, that the positive feelings haven’t gone away. They still feel amazing, something they may go so far as to attribute to the lack of dead animals in their diet. The more New Age-y vegans might here say something along the lines of “you are what you eat, and if you eat the flesh of terrified animals, that’s going to affect you” or some similar, yet equally unscientific, claim.
I’m going to assume that eating meat and animal products does not, in and of itself, have negative effects on someone’s psychological and physical well-being. Sure, someone whose lactose intolerant yet still drinks cow’s milk on the daily isn’t going to feel great — not physically nor psychologically. But leaving aside food allergies and similar afflictions, there is nothing to the claim that meat and animal products contributes to emotional problems or otherwise fills people up with “negative energy” the removal of which causes human happiness and good vibes.
So what really makes veganism feel good?
For one thing, many people who go vegan also adopt other lifestyle changes simultaneously. They may implement an exercise regimen, a more regular sleep schedule, and meditation. In addition to abstaining from meat and animal products, they are likely to also avoid or otherwise cut down on items such as soda, alcohol, and added sugar — the foods and drinks that people know they are better off not having. When people make a lifestyle change, such as going vegan, they often make other changes at the same time. It’s hard, then, to attribute positive feelings to their veganism specifically.
More interesting to me, however, is the potential role of the connection between our moral psychology and physiology.
Disgust is a funny thing. If you’re like me, you ate some combination of meat, dairy, and eggs everyday for the first 20 or so years of your life. You may have thought a little bit about what the production of those foods entailed, but you never found the products gross. After going vegan, you can’t look at a beef patty without thinking about its almost 100% likelihood of containing fecal matter, and you can’t look at a glass of cow’s milk without thinking of the pus from infected udders. Suddenly, these foods became disgusting.
This is a result of our moral psychology. Moral disgust, the feeling we get when we hear of a thief ransacking an elderly person’s home, or of animal cruelty, is tightly linked to physical disgust, the feeling we get when we see spoiled food or a rotting carcass.
There’s a fascinating body of psychological literature on moral disgust, but I will briefly summarize some of the research that has underscored disgust’s duality here. If you spray fart spray in a room, people will be more likely to express moral disapproval of homosexuality compared to people in a room without fart spray. Similarly, people that are more sensitive to disgust are less approving of homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, conservatives tend to be more disgust-sensitive compared to liberals, and show greater physiological arousal when presented with disgusting images. Reminding people to wash their hands caused them to endorse more conservative moral attitudes compared to people not reminded to wash their hands. Perhaps most relevant, certain tastes can result in more harsh moral judgements.
Much of the above research is described in the following TED Talk by David Pizarro:
There are many more experiments that have been done in this realm, and the results are almost always the same: physiological (or “gustatory”) disgust causes negative moral judgements. Think fast: is a cockroach good or bad? You probably said bad, and you probably came to this conclusion quickly. That’s because cockroaches are disgusting, and we therefore tend to think there is something morally wrong with them.
Does that sound familiar? Meat and animal products are quite disgusting, and not just because they are unclean. To vegans, most or all non-vegan foods represent suffering to which we are morally opposed. As bacteria and pathogen-laden as many non-vegan foods are, our disgust response to those foods is primarily a result of our moral psychology.
So it is perhaps no wonder that we feel so much better after going vegan. We came to feel a moral opposition to meat and animal products as a result of learning the grueling suffering they represent. We came to feel disgusted by them. By extension, we came to also feel disgusted by our past selves, who consumed those products without regard for the suffering of livestock animals. It is no wonder, then, that vegans tend to feel better — physically and psychologically — in comparison with our non-vegan past selves.
The claim that non-vegans are filling their bodies up with “negative energy,” and that we can restore our “good vibes” by removing meat and animal products from our lives still isn’t exactly right. But with some understanding of how our moral psychology operates, it makes a little more sense as to why people believe it: it’s not that far off, after all.
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