“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
One of the words I’ve seen used most often to describe life during the coronavirus pandemic is standstill. It’s often in reference to the economy, but it could just as well describe our state of physical inactivity. For millions, life suddenly became very sedentary: Walking to the office involves moving approximately 10 feet. Another 10 feet away is the refrigerator, making it easier than ever to add calories precisely at the same time we’re burning fewer.
Gallup’s polling data show that the percentage of Americans who say they are getting less exercise now than before the start of the pandemic is 38 percent, while 14 percent say they’re getting more. The rest say their activity levels haven’t changed—which in most cases likely means that they didn’t exercise much in the first place; after all, more than 80 percent of adults do not meet government guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, and fewer than 5 percent participate in 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Meanwhile, the percentage who say they are eating an unhealthier diet now than before the pandemic is 28 percent, versus 13 percent who say they are eating better. (The rest say their diet has not changed.)
According to health scholars, these trends may have grave long-term public-health consequences; even before the pandemic, physical inactivity and overeating were widespread problems in the United States, and the coronavirus is making them worse. Although that might be fairly obvious, there are also individual happiness effects of this that are less so. The sedentary and dietary side effects of COVID-19 are making it harder to manage our life satisfaction. Fortunately, we can do a lot to mitigate this problem, and, in doing so, build better attitudes and life strategies that will outlast the pandemic.
Many researchers have looked at the association between health behaviors and happiness. In 2017, for example, researchers at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, looked at dozens of studies across thousands of human subjects in numerous countries and concluded that good health is moderately positively associated with greater well-being. Further making the connection with diet and exercise, research has shown that obesity can have a negative effect on happiness. Meanwhile, research shows that exercising may improve mood and social functioning, as well as lift depression. And it does so among all age groups, from students to the elderly.
The stillness of pandemic life and our resulting inactivity can help explain some of the dramatic happiness declines during the pandemic. However, this standstill could just as easily improve things for any of us who choose to exploit the disrupted work and life patterns to establish new and better routines. This isn’t exactly a novel observation, but it’s still devilishly hard to act on it. Diet and exercise programs are usually ultimately unsuccessful, with failure rates (meaning that we gain back the weight we hope to lose permanently within only a few years and don’t stick with healthier diets) above 95 percent.
There are many explanations for this, including the aggressive marketing of highly processed foods and an ancient human metabolism that facilitates weight gain as insurance against starvation. Still, with so much at stake, lapsing into inactivity and poor eating can seem inexplicable, even as we’re doing it. I hear people berate themselves constantly over their diet and fitness failures. Two mistaken attitudes help illuminate why a diet started on Sunday is so often abandoned on Monday.
First, eating poorly and being physically inactive are common coping strategies to provide relief from stress and bad feelings. Unfortunately, they are an exercise in futility, due to homeostasis—the tendency of the mind and body to fight against our efforts to boost our moods with chemicals and creature comforts. As the behavioral neuroscientist Judith Grisel documents in her book, Never Enough, our brain quickly neutralizes the relief they bring, and puts us right back into our distress.
Second, if you ask people why they might exercise and improve their diets, few will say, “I want to be happy.” It’s common to hear that people want to improve their appearance—which presumably means they think it will enhance their well-being vis-à-vis the increased attention and admiration of others. This, however, turns out to be a mistake. Although it is true that becoming more attractive is linked to greater well-being, the effect is so trivial that it can’t possibly pass a personal cost-benefit analysis.
In 2013, economists at the University of Texas at Austin studied a large sample of people from the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the U.K. They calculated that a particular percentage increase in beauty results in roughly a tenth as much of an increase in happiness. Here’s what that means: Let’s say you are totally ordinary in both attractiveness and happiness—in the 50th population percentile in each. Determined to become more beautiful, you do enormous work—diet, exercise, surgery, whatever—and move up to being more beautiful than, say, 84 percent of the population. As a result, the UT scholars found, your happiness would rise by only about four percentage points. If you are already educated, working, and married, your happiness would rise by only two points.
Perhaps you will serendipitously discover that your improved diet and exercise have made you happier in and of themselves. But if your well-being depends on being more attractive, are you really willing to maintain a punitive diet and hours a day of exercise to maintain a measly one-percentage-point increase in happiness, compared with other people who didn’t go to all that effort? “All is vanity,” reads the Book of Ecclesiastes. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Or in the gym, for that matter—at which point, pizza and Netflix start to look like a better use of time and resources.
The best approach to adopting a healthier lifestyle during the pandemic is one that eschews both vanity and the futile chase for easy comforts, and then builds a few simple habits on that foundation.
If you have a penchant for potato chips and the couch in times of trouble, consider an “opposite signal” strategy that requires little mental effort. When your mind tells you to numb yourself, come to life, instead: Exercise precisely when you most want to cocoon; eat nutrient-dense foods when you most crave junk. A simple way to start practicing this is to go outside for a walk at the moments when you feel the urge to curl up. None other than Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine,” and researchers have long seen it as the cure for many of our physical, psychological, and even social ailments.
This strategy acknowledges the paradox of well-being that so many of us fall prey to: Our instincts are often wrong, and we sometimes need to do the opposite of what they tell us to do. When your mind says, You feel sad—but you’ll feel better if you eat a whole pizza while sitting on the couch watching television, your mind is lying to you. The unhappiness you feel is actually diminishing your brain’s executive-functioning ability, making it more difficult to make good decisions. Pizza and TV won’t make you happy for more than a moment, but what will help now and in the long term is a good walk outdoors.
But there is a deeper principle at work here, which is that true well-being requires disciplining the worldly appetites more than giving in to them. Research shows that self-denial can raise happiness by knocking us out of “hedonic adaptation”—that is, the situation in which we get used to nice things and they stop giving us pleasure. This is a commonsense principle. My late father-in-law, who endured the ravages of the Spanish Civil War and life in a refugee camp, once told me that the greatest tragedy young people in wealthy countries face today is never experiencing hunger, and, thus, never truly enjoying dinner.
Deeper still, there is a spiritual element as well. In his novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse wrote, “Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.” Fasting and physical exertion are a key part of many religions, and are believed to open up a spiritual dimension otherwise unavailable to us. In rhapsodic words attributed to the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi on the metaphysical benefits of self-denial,
If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,
Every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
Rumi’s claim—echoed by the spiritually adept across the ages—is that, with practice, self-denial is not a nuisance or necessary evil. On the contrary, with practice and purpose, it can be a source of transcendence and bliss.
Ponder this a bit during your pandemic stillness. Our craving for comfort often leads us to a misbegotten idea of what will bring happiness. But when we experience better habits and healthier practices as an opportunity for philosophical and spiritual growth, rather than aesthetic pursuits, life rewards unfold beyond what we initially imagined. This is how we make healthier habits a new way of life.