Happiness in the Time of Covid 19, Part 8: Too Much Meaning,Not Enough Pleasure …
… and that’s okay right now. Indeed, it’s necessary.
I think it’s comfortable for many of us to embrace meaning as a crucial element of happiness, but pleasure is not to be scoffed at. We are biological creatures with physical needs and desires, which no doubt have important evolutionary tasks. Even if they don’t, life is hard. Why not also embrace joy and pleasure?
My primary positive psychology teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, encouraged us to look at happiness as a blend of both pleasure and meaning. He envisioned a “Hamburger Model of Happiness,” so-called because Tal initially drew the concept on a napkin in a restaurant while pondering healthy and/or tasty burgers. It is a quadrant with four choices, with meaning and pleasure taking the place of healthy and tasty:
- The first quadrant, with high meaning but low pleasure, is a rat race. Sometimes we need to live that way—for example, when starting a new and very demanding job, or caring for a dying loved one. It’s grueling and not very happy to stay there permanently.
- The second quadrant, with high pleasure but little or no meaning, is hedonism. Though reveling in worry-free pleasure may feel good for a vacation, it can feel empty in the long run. If you doubt me, try it yourself. I just don’t think any of us can go too long without doing something helpful.
- The third quadrant, no pleasure or meaning, is just plain bleak.
- Finally, the fourth quadrant is high meaning, high pleasure. That sweet spot, says Ben-Shahar, is where happiness thrives.
Ideally, we could all stake out a balance between meaning and pleasure. But, as noted above, sometimes we have to forsake pleasure for meaning. For long term well-being and happiness for self and others, choosing meaning (wearing a mask and social distancing) over pleasure (carefree hugging without the encumbrance of face coverings) is clearly the appropriate choice.
We hope we don’t have to live this way for too long, but our current reinforce the importance of meaning to well-being. Indeed, choosing meaning can be an investment in happiness. Just as tending to an infant’s needs now can result in a more thriving child (and happier parents) later, so too can our Covid prevention efforts (meaning) result lead to less grieving (unhappiness) and a faster return of pleasures like public singing and dancing (happiness).
It reminds me of something else I learned about from Ben-Shahar: the famous “Marshmallow Experiment” led by Stanford University Professor Walter Mischel in 1972. In this experiment, children were offered one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they could wait for the delayed gratification. I’m not going to get into the results here, but let’s just say, having the patience to wait for two marshmallows is preferable.
But what if that first marshmallow, that first taste of pleasure, meant not only one less treat but also added suffering?
That, my friends, is the question I believe we must all confront right now in the context of the November 2020 election. Are we willing to sacrifice pleasure in the moment not only for greater future pleasure (imagine the possible joy on election night!) but also to avoid the significant and widespread suffering which would surely be a hallmark of a second Trump presidency?
For me — and for many of you, too — the answer is definitely yes. A shout-it-from-the rooftops yes. With roughly eight weeks to go before an election with frightening implications, I am indeed willing to give up a variety of daily pleasures while instead finding enormous meaning in doing everything within my power to elect Democrats up and down the ticket.
Michele Obama put it this way at the Democratic National Convention, “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me — they can, and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.”
I’ve been a political junkie since my mid-teens, but I have never felt caught up in such a dire moment. My fears have been heightened by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I’m wondering if her reporting might also serve as a warning of how things can get worse, and how much worse they can get. She writes of the days following Reconstruction after the Civil War, when:
- “Blacks in the South, accustomed to the liberties established after the war, were hurled back in time …One by one, each license of freedom accorded them was stripped away. The world got smaller, narrower, confined with each new court ruling and ordinance. Not unlike European Jews, who watched the world close in on them, slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism,” Wilkerson continues, “colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go … (including) nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions.” (p.38, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration).
Wilkerson offers a breathtaking amount of statistics and stories to illustrate just how bad it got — a deterioration, I want to emphasize, came after a period of seemingly great improvement and advancement in rights and equality. Which is to say, take no comfort in the fact that we recently had a Black president.
Here’s just one gut-wrenching measurement of the post-Reconstruction horror: “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929” (p. 39, Suns).
Oh, but that was then. It couldn’t possibly get that bad again, could it?? Or could it? Literally seconds after I typed the above line about lynching, I saw this post on the internet:
“CBS Boston reports:
New Hampshire State Representative James Spillane is under investigation by the State Attorney General for a comment he made on Facebook. Spillane, a Republican, wrote, ‘Public Service Announcement: If you see a BLM [Black Lives Matter] sign on a lawn it’s the same as having the porch light on for Halloween. You’re free to loot and burn that house.’”
Um, that sounds bad. Inciting arson over Black Lives Matter signs? In quaint New England? We’re in trouble, people.
You could say that Spillane is just another rogue whacko, but you cannot say the same for the Social Progress Index, which according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof “collects 50 metrics of well-being [worldwide]— nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life.” In a September 10, 2020 column entitled, “We’re No. 28! And Dropping!“, Kristof reports that this Index found “that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.”
The United States was 19th in the world in 2011. Now, our quality of life ranks 28th. Kristof quotes Michael Porter, the chair of the Social Progress Index advisory panel as observing, “The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action.”
Consider me called to action. Yet, I know there is reason to hope.
Polls actually show the Biden-Harris ticket with a strong lead, and the Democrats could have major victories in the House and Senate. That is calming, but most everyone I know is hopeful and terrified at the same time. We just don’t don’t what will happen.
Paradoxically, the “not knowing” can also be a source of comfort. Because I did a recent google search for readings on the topic of being present, I recently came a “Brain Pickings” edition featuring the wisdom of a first century philosopher, Seneca. Seneca counseled:
- “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality … What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as f they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet. … Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not. In the meantime, it is not. So look forward to better things.”
And I am looking forward to better things! I have made three different week long reservations on nearby Lake Champlain for summer 2021. I visit those websites frequently, and savor the experiences I imagine having there with my family. But, I made sure every reservation could be canceled, and I could get my money back. Because, who knows???
The life trick seems to be holding both the hope and the genuine concern at the same time. To find meaning, and maybe also happiness. Here’s what that looks like for me:
- On behalf of organizers on the ground in key states, I have spent months overseeing dozens of volunteers, who each needs is a lot of work. Making sure each other volunteers writing close to 10,000 postcards to Get Out the Vote and/or provide critical registration information, especially to voters of color. You’d be surprised how many details are involved in this effort! But it makes me happy to see my front porch filled with packages for friends and neighbors to pick up. One time we even provided painted rocks as a thank you. That was very happy making.
- I also write postcards myself, to voters in Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. The scripts are always provided, and I have to write small but legibly. I’m starting to think I need a new glasses prescription! Here, there is such a sense of accomplishment! Also happy making.
- Textbanking — and this is the part that hurts a little bit. Again using initial messages crafted by local groups to achieve a particular goal with voters in their states, I engage in text conversations with anyone who responds. There is much enthusiasm (I’ve recruited a lot of volunteers) but also some truly nasty insults against the candidates and me, the volunteer. I think the ugliness is bad for my health; I know it has caused insomnia on more than one night. But I will keep at it because it is a valuable tool. The meaning is worth it.
- Phonebanking — okay, I’ve only done this once so far. I don’t like to phone bank. But again, I’ll do it, because it matters so very very much.
- Fundraising — My group has hosted some awesome fundraising concerts in years past. Now, it’s virtual, and highly successful. Thanks to the leadership of my amazing friends at Lean Left Vermont, strategic giving has never been easier. In fact, Lean Left VT has made all of these activities accessible to hundreds of us. You are welcome to join us.
Here’s something else I probably have in common with many of you: my life in these times of Covid-19 already had extra layers of meaning. Our empty next has turned into multi-generational housing. A great blessing, to be sure, but not without a lot of extra stress.
Maria Popova, the intellectual powerhouse behind Brain Pickings recently pondered the relationship between meaning and pleasure. “Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love?,” she wrote. “We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.”
For me, some of that ballast is provided by being around an eight year old granddaughter. One recent day, she wanted an audience for her latest exploit: using cardboard to turn the stairs into a sliding board. With her bike helmet on, she sat on a cushion at the top of the stairs, afraid to start.
“Hurry up,” I pleaded, as she had interrupted my texting. “I have to save democracy.”
“Okay,” she said. “You save democracy, I’ll save happiness.”
Meaning and pleasure. Each in their own time.