“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
You live in the future. So do I. We all do. It’s human nature. However, there are times—such as during a pandemic—when this nature makes us suffer.
We are “prospective” creatures, according to the psychologists and philosophers Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada in their 2016 book Homo Prospectus. Indeed, as Seligman told me, on average we spend 30 to 50 percent of our self-generated thought—what we think about when we aren’t trying to concentrate—contemplating the distant future. No other creatures do this, with the small exception of some primates who store tools for future use.
Living in the future is one reason meditation and practicing mindfulness are so hard. Meditators speak of the monkey mind: The monkey doesn’t want to sit still; he wants to swing off to the next tree and see what’s up there.
The prospective monkey in our minds wants to see lots of tasty fruit, and have a way to get it; the best way to frustrate him is an empty tree, or one where the fruit is out of his reach. Since we spend so much time living in the future, it makes us happy to feel that the future is full of possibilities for improvement, and that we have some control over making those possibilities into realities. In contrast, a near-perfect cocktail for misery is pessimism and low personal control over our circumstances.
Because of the pandemic, the future feels difficult and uncertain, and few of us have much control over it, beyond doing our best to keep ourselves and those around us safe. The result is a lot of unhappy monkeys. Gallup survey data show that pessimism about the future of the pandemic in the U.S. is rising. This is infecting our general outlook: “I wake up every day with nothing to look forward to,” a friend recently confessed to me. “I feel like staying in bed.”
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We make light of pessimism, even creating amusing pessimistic characters, such as Eeyore and Charlie Brown. But in real life, pessimism is no laughing matter. Research shows that it is highly correlated with suicide. Young adults who are pessimistic are disproportionately likely to suffer poor health in middle age. Similarly, scholars have shown that having a sense of low personal control links adverse economic circumstances to poor health and impaired emotional functioning. Low personal control in the workplace—called low decision latitude by psychologists—especially in combination with high pressure, was found to be a significant predictor of depression and low job satisfaction among workers in one 1990 study.
In short, bad things happen when your monkey is frustrated. Things get even worse when all our monkeys are in the same empty tree. Not only do many people feel pessimistic about their personal future right now; there’s also an overwhelming collective sense of powerlessness and negativity. It’s not just that my future feels bleak, so does ours. And since the pandemic is a collective phenomenon, there is little any of us can do to ignore it or avoid the constraints it imposes on our lives. There’s very little novelty to break up our days, few new faces, little movement, few fun events to look forward to. All we can do is wait—for a vaccine, for the election, for herd immunity, for something, anything, that might change our prospects.
But we are not helpless. While there’s little we can do to change the harsh realities of the pandemic, we can change the mindset we use to face them. By doing two things, we can improve our ability to cope with this situation, as well as with negativity and feelings of powerlessness in the future.
1. Channel your inner lawyer.
Pessimism generally distorts reality. Seligman and others recommend that pessimists combat their tendency to expect the worst by employing what they call a disputing technique—verbalizing the negative assumptions we are making about the future, and disputing them with realistic facts.
Here’s an example: I teach at a university, and something I love is spending time with students in the classroom. It gives me energy and joy. Due to the coronavirus, all classes are online; I record my lectures in advance in front of a camera in my makeshift video studio. The only real-time feedback I get is a message telling me I’ve run out of space on my hard drive.
The other day I found myself darkly musing that I would likely never go back in person; that this would be my new normal, forever. This pessimism, fueled by news stories I’ve read with titles like “Will the Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience?,” is completely unwarranted in my school’s case. So I disputed it with the facts. We are, in fact, creating hybrid classes, and planning for an in-person future. There’s a good chance I’ll be back in the classroom within the next year. My odd work situation is tedious, but temporary.
Most likely, your future is also brighter than what you may think at your darkest moments, so dispute your pessimism not with mindless optimism, but with facts. Build a solid case for something other than the worst-case scenario, and argue it to yourself like a lawyer. And while you’re at it, read fewer stories about the pandemic. You probably aren’t learning anything new, but, rather, just trying to get a bit more certainty about the future, which is impossible.
2. Turn constraints into decisions.
For a while in my 30s, I made my living performing military analysis for the Rand Corporation, a think tank in California. When I ran into trouble in my work, my boss used to say, “Turn constraints into decisions.” In other words, start an examination of every problem by listing the apparent limitations on your freedom, and instead of taking them as given, consider how you can change them.
For example, in the case of the coronavirus lockdowns, the complaint about work I most often hear is that with the inability to work in a normal way, productivity is ruined. We can’t perform up to our own standards—whether because of competing child-care demands, being isolated from co-workers, or just Zoom fatigue—and it is maddening. Many people feel like they are stuck in a cycle of frustrating mediocrity.
The answer is to change the definition of productivity. Many of us have a twisted notion of a productive life that revolves around pure work output. Some have little choice in the matter, but most Americans work more than they need to in order to meet their job responsibilities. In 2018, according to a survey from the U.S. Travel Association, 55 percent of American workers did not use all their paid vacation, amounting to 768 million unused days. And when they do take vacation, 54 percent say they feel guilty about it.
If this describes you, you might use this period to reset your definition of productivity. True, many aspects of many jobs have been made more difficult by the pandemic. But other parts of a truly productive life are begging for your attention. You can set goals for exercise, work on acquiring new skills, spend quality time with loved ones, or learn to tame your monkey mind in meditation. This is the sort of productivity that will reward you in the long run and can help you establish a healthier, happier equilibrium when the pandemic is over.
As I have often written in this column, the healthiest way to look at the pandemic—or any difficult period in our lives—is as an opportunity for improvement and personal growth, without pushing away the negative emotions that are a natural by-product of hard times. As we confront pessimism in the context of COVID-19, we will start to see and manage it more generally in our lives. If we are lucky, this is the most pessimistic and powerless period we will ever face. But even if harder times await, what our monkey learns today will help him later.