Lately, I’ve had some trouble concentrating on my work. As it has slowly dawned on me that the Coronavirus pandemic might very well be the biggest global crisis of my lifetime – both in terms of the death toll and in economic terms – somehow many work tasks I was excited about a few weeks ago now feel meaningless.
What point is there in writing a scientific article when people around me are in a lock-down, fighting for their income – and some fighting for their lives?
It can be devastating to just watch from the sidelines how the pandemic spreads. I want to somehow, in however small way, contribute. Do what is in my own hands to alleviate the situation. Accordingly, I have tried to think where would my efforts have the biggest impact on helping the current situation.
What could I do?
Now, I don’t have any specific skills to directly fight the virus. I don’t have medical expertise; I am not an epidemiologist; I am not a trained nurse. Generally, my special skills are found on the conceptual level: Having practiced philosophy and empirical psychological research for the last ten or so years, I have acquired expertise in certain areas of knowledge. If I could utilize that expertise in a meaningful way, I could perhaps offer something unique to the situation. Therein lies most likely the biggest positive impact I could deliver.
With this question in mind, I quickly identified three potential pathways where my expertise could be channeled to answer some presently urgent questions:
- This crisis has an impact on people’s sense of meaningfulness – the reflection I do here about my own work being a case in point. Accordingly, being an expert on research on meaningfulness, I’ve been thinking how do people find meaning in times of crisis. While crises cause anxiety, depression and suffering, we know from research that some people also experience post-traumatic growth. In the long run, they gain something from what they have gone through. And here meaningfulness, being able to make sense of the situation and find some positive purpose for it, is one key mechanism leading to such post-traumatic growth. Accordingly, I’ve been doing some reading on post-traumatic growth and acceptance and commitment therapy, trying to figure out are there some guidelines to be derived from that literature that could help people to cope.
- Research has made clear that economic growth does not equal citizen well-being. Case in point is the US where the last decade looked very good from the economic perspective – increasing stock prizes and GDP, decreased unemployment – but where citizen well-being and even average life expectancy were decreasing. Economy was improving, people’s health and well-being was regressing. Accordingly, when we are soon starting to discuss how to restart the economy and how to get out of the cycle of unemployment, bankruptcies, and lower demand for products, this conversation should not only focus on economic growth. Some measures to improve economic growth will help the citizens. But not all. In order to participate in that discourse and to remind the policy makers of the importance of thinking about the well-being impact of various policy measures – a topic I have been writing about – I have now read about national levels of trust and social capital and how they impact the nation’s ability to be resilient in times of crisis.
- How governments and policy experts communicate their guidelines to citizens can have a big impact on whether the citizens will follow these guidelines. Demonstrating that one trusts the citizens, being honest and transparent, delivering clear guidelines, appealing to people’s willingness to help each other, and emphasizing that we are in this together are a few effective ways of ensuring positive response from the citizens. Here my expertise on research on self-determination theory and how to be autonomy supportive can offer insights on effective and empowering communication.
So if you ask me what I’ve been doing this weekend, this is what I’ve been doing: Reading a pile of scientific articles in the hope that reading them will bring some insight that I could capitalize on next week at work to do something meaningful.
Instead of focusing on the trivial, I want to ensure that whatever I do at work is linked to the current situation, with the potential of somehow helping in what we are going through.
That is my way of coping and finding meaning in all this: Trying to make some kind of small positive contribution to the humankind.
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: