My book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence – came out today to quite a different world than where it was written. Right now, I was supposed to be in New York, starting my book tour that would take me to Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and so forth. Instead, I am at home, all events cancelled, my three kids home from school and daycare, and my workplace, the university, shut down. The next weeks will reveal how big is the death toll and turmoil in my city and yours.
Instead of celebration and sparkling wine, I am asking myself: Is now the appropriate time to publish a book entitled A Wonderful Life?
Last summer, when the name was decided during a warm and sunny weekend – I remember staring at a lake, contemplating the proposal –, it seemed like the perfect title to capture the spirit of the book. Right now, talking about a wonderful life sounds banal. When people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened, it’s a matter of preserving and saving lives, wonderful or not.
This crisis has put things in perspective. The many petty strivings and complains we’ve occupied us were revealed to be trivial. Did your local barista serve your flat white with the wrong label of oat milk? Well, now the whole place has closed down, the baristas lost their income, and the owner is fighting to avoid filing bankruptcy in the next coming weeks.
The life-as-it-used-to-be was taken away from us, making us aware of how many comforts of the everyday life we took for granted: being able to hang out with our friends, visit our grandparents, kids having a school and us having a workplace to go to.
Even more seriously, we’ve become aware of the fragility of life. How everything we have, anybody close to us – and even our own lives – can be taken away from us at any moment. As Paulo Coelho put it: “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.”
And this is where my book fits in. Behind the uplifting title, it aims to confront our existence bare and naked. It aims to stare at the void of meaninglessness and even death straight in the eyes and boldly state: I am aware of you. I know you. But I refuse to be dragged down by you. I am still alive, the music is still playing for me. Whether or not I have years, weeks, or days more to live, I will make the best out of them. The meaningfulness of my days are decided here and now, by the everyday choices I make. And as long as I am still alive, I aim to make the best out of this unique opportunity called life.
The book thus aims to be a manifesto for how life can be meaningful, even when facing our own mortality. In fact, it aims to show how becoming aware of the fragility of our existence can help us to appreciate even more the unique life that we are given to live. Adversity wakes you up to take charge of your own life. And meaningfulness can exist alongside adversity. When trying to cope with a crisis, having a strong sense of meaningfulness can be your key ally.
How then to approach life to make it more meaningful, especially today?
There is much that is beyond our control in this situation, and occasionally it can feel overwhelming and scary. To remain sane and functional, it is crucial to focus on those areas of life that are within your own control. Instead of ruminating over what you can’t influence, identify what you are still capable of doing to improve your own situation and the situation of those around you. Concentrating on that is enough to make your life meaningful. Washing your hands have never been as meaningful and as valuable act as it is today. By doing that regularly you participate in an activity that literally saves human lives.
My key message in the book is that meaningfulness is not something grand and given to you from above. It is something happening within your life, and typically what makes your life meaningful are very mundane things like spending time with the family or having fun with your friends. While the present situation makes some of these things tricky – instead of beer in a bar, you’ll have to have a beer over a video call with your friends – most of the elements of meaningfulness are still up for grabs even today.
Most importantly, both research and our everyday experience confirm that a key pathway to more meaningfulness is helping others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant opportunities to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.
Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time for action. Rarely have you had the change to help so many with so little. Just by staying home and avoiding social contact you are doing a tremendous service to the society. Sitting in your sofa has never been more meaningful than today.
Even though the present crisis might involve despair and suffering, it can simultaneously offer you a change to live your life more meaningfully. Through helping others today, by doing your own part in stopping the spreading of the virus, you are not only making the world a better place, you are also making your own life more meaningful.
Read more in the book:
In radio right now: “And baby, it’s amazing I’m in this maze with you. I just can’t crack your code.” Don’t worry, Mr. Timberlake, I am here to crack the code for you. You just need to do what MC Hammer did: become a bit more geeky!
You curse my name
In spite to put me to shame
But I still don’t know why
Why I love it so much?
We’ve been told by Mr. Jay (Z) that in the lyrics of the song Holy Grail, Mr. Timber (lake) is talking about his love/hate affair with fame. In the same song, Mr. Jay himself complains how he is “caught up in all these lights and cameras” and ready to “f**k the fame.”
Both of them seem to be confused: How did they end up in this horrific maze of fame? And they still don’t know why they love it so much, even when it is sometimes so painful. Fortunately, the right answers are out there. They have just been hiding in the laboratories of mischievous – and less famous – scientists. So what can they tell to Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber about sustainable happiness?
Consider this: A few psychologists I know from University of Rochester (341 miles from Brooklyn) asked students graduating from college what they want to get in life. Some of the students had cozy dreams about satisfying close relationships, personal growth and serving the community. Other’s were all bling-bling, and wanted the infamous trio of money, fame, and image. And alas: one year later it turned out that both groups had taken some successful steps towards their goals: inner growth people had experienced inner growth, while fame people were a bit more famous. This seems to proof the theorem set forth by professor Eminem from 8 Mile Road University in his highly cited paper Be Careful What you Wish for:
So be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it
And if you get it then you just might not know what to do with
Cause it might just come back on you ten-fold.
As professor Eminem argues, we should be very careful about our dreams. The truth is out there: All goals are not created equal. The research shows that achieving some goals produces well-being, while achievement of other goals produces – well – ill-being.
What are then the sources of sustainable happiness? What are the goals that produce true happiness?
There are four of them:
1) Having a sense of freedom and autonomy in one’s life
2) Feeling competent at what one is doing
3) Having satisfying close relationships
4) Being able to contribute to the society
The key problem with too much fame is that while 2 & 4 might be satisfied, too much fame can completely trump 1 and 3.
Let’s take Mr. Jay as an example:
1) Feeling Free: He can buy an island for his girlfriend as a birthday present, but at the same time: “can’t even take my daughter for a walk, see ‘em by the corner store.” He has certain freedoms others can just dream about, but at the same time he has been deprived of many freedoms that are self-evident for ordinary people: Being able to visit a corner-store, walk around freely on streets of Brooklyn – or any other neighborhood on this planet.
2) Feeling Competent: Hats off! Mr. Jay is ambitious, talented, and disciplined. He is the “post-millennial embodiment of the American Dream”, who won the game of making money out of hip hop. As regards competence, he is way up there!
3) Feeling Related: Having a sympathetic wife and a lovely daughter is great. But given that both he and his wife are quite dedicated to their careers, they might not have as much quality time together as your average Joneses. In addition, Mr. Jay complains how he is surrounded by pigeons. I am not an ornithologist, but Mr. Jay seems to have some knowledge about the behavior of pigeons: “But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight.” Finding friends when everybody around you is a pigeon? Not cool.
4) Contributing: A bit mixed really. Mr. Jay gives to charities, serves as a role model, and organizes cool things like Made in America festival. Harry Belafonte (the Banana Boat Song guy), however, criticizes him for turning his back on social responsibility. He thinks that Mr. Jay could do so much more with his high profile status and a net worth of 450 millions. In that sense, Mr. Belafonte feels that Bruce Springsteen is more black than Mr. Jay.
The point being: The fame itself doesn’t make anyone happy or unhappy. As regards happiness, fame helps only to the extent to which it helps to fulfill the four needs of sustainable happiness. And while having no money hurts, having too much money and fame can hurt too. It’s of course nice that if one “just want a Picasso in my casa, no, my castle”, one can buy it. But it is not nice when living a normal life becomes impossible:
“I feel like I’m cornered off enough is enough, I’m calling this off
Who the fuck I’m kidding though, I’m getting high, sitting low
Sliding by in that big body, curtains all in my window
This fame hurt but this chain works.”
Ok, now we know why Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber both love and hate fame at the same time. But where to go from here? What should they do to break loose and find that holy grail of sustainable happiness?
Mr. Jay asks us to look at “what that s**t did to Hammer”. So let’s look at what happened to MC Hammer!
For those born in the ’90s, MC Hammer was a guy who twenty years ago instructed us to not “Touch This”, leaving us wondering what exactly it is we can’t touch (and is it something we would like to touch in the first place?) He was huge in 1990! And surely, Mr. Hammer went through the usual cycle: huge fame, huge money, huge mansion in Fremont, California. And then the backlash: bankruptcy, loosing the mansion, out of fashion.
But what does Mr. Hammer do now?
It seems that he is living the good life with his wife and six kids while putting in some occasional missionary work for the local church. As for work, he is investing in and consulting tech companies, calling himself a “super-geek.” And he is right: he is definitely less cool when he talks about the user interfaces of search engines at Web 2.0 Summit than when he rapped about 2 Legit 2 Quit wearing Ray-Bans.
In a nutshell, Mr. Hammer in 2013 is less cool, less famous, but more happy.
Let’s break his life into the four building blocks of sustainable happiness to see how he has found his own holy grail of sustainable happiness:
1) Feeling free: Less fame means more freedom to walk on the streets and have the benefits of normal life that superstars are deprived off. Still, he is so well off that he can do most of the things he likes, like traveling or having a nice house.
2) Feeling competent: He can still do it if he wants, for example mashing it up with PSY at the American Music Awards. And he is getting more competent in the geeky stuff as well.
3) Feeling related: Having been together with his wife for over 25 years, and having six children certainly is a good start in having satisfying close relationships in one’s life. Also in his work life he seems to be surrounded with fellow geeks he loves to hang out with.
4) Contributing: His work at the church as well as the way he helps tech startups both seem to give him a strong sense of being able to contribute towards the society and other people.
That’s sustainable happiness, isn’t it! To get there, Mr. Hammer obviously needed to “Stop” before the new “Hammertime” started. He did that, found what is truly valuable in life, and is now living a more peaceful, less famous, but much happier life.
So don’t worry Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber, there is also hope for you. Just become a geek – less cool, more happy!