“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
A pandemic Halloween raises a number of questions about masking. Do we wear our COVID masks under our Halloween masks, or over them? Has the CDC issued guidelines on which costumes can best accommodate an N95 underneath? What will Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky be wearing?
Layering our literal masks sounds like a pain. But figuratively, many of us do this every day when we cloak our identities or true feelings by suppressing our thoughts or acting in certain ways. Some of these masks we like, and some we don’t. Some we are forced to wear to get along in life, and others we wear voluntarily and are afraid to remove.
The merits of metaphorical masking are hotly debated. Some commentators exhort us to be our authentic selves for the sake of mental health and personal integrity; to disguise yourself is, in the immortal parlance of Holden Caulfield, to be a contemptible “phony.” Others support some amount of repression of our true selves when we’re out in the world; the political columnist George Will, for example, argues that doing so is a simple requirement of “civilization.” He regrets a good deal of the authenticity that we currently see in public life.
Both sides are a little bit right. In the appropriate contexts, masking your true self can be healthy and freeing. And some inhibitions are a basic part of a functioning society. But when masking is a permanent and central part of your work or life, something is seriously amiss. Just as a surgical mask can’t be worn 24/7, our metaphorical masks must come off eventually.
Putting on masks and disguises is undeniably fun. Most of us have happy childhood memories of dressing up for Halloween; since Halloween celebrations with disguises gained popularity in the United States during the great Irish immigration of the 1840s, the holiday has become Americans’ third-most favorite by some accounts, beaten out by only Christmas and Thanksgiving. During Carnival, celebrated before Lent in Catholic countries such as Italy and Brazil, adults can let loose in anonymous abandon before repenting for their sins for the subsequent 40 days. The German language has a special word for the happiness such customs bring: Maskenfreiheit—the freedom found behind a mask.
The bliss of Maskenfreiheit can be literal; at Carnival celebrations, for example, hiding your face protects you from the judgments of others. But it doesn’t have to be. Think of the feeling you get when you are in a setting where you know absolutely no one. Maybe moving to a new city as a teenager changed your life for the better. Maybe you get a small thrill from striking up a conversation in a hotel bar with a stranger, in which you say things you would never tell someone you know. Maybe traveling solo makes you feel invincible.
We also can find Maskenfreiheit in a crowd, even when we know everyone around us. Researchers have found that losing yourself in a group identity (also known as “the hive mind”) for defined periods of time can be an intensely pleasurable experience. Just look at the faces of people in religious ecstasy as a group—or at a Rolling Stones concert, for that matter—and you can see this phenomenon at work.
Metaphorical masking becomes a problem when it is not voluntary. In many cases we feel obliged to hide our true emotions, particularly when they are negative. Such a mask is difficult to maintain. Consider the so-called Pan Am smile, named for flight attendants of the now-defunct airline, who were instructed to smile at passengers no matter what they were feeling. Genuine smiles of happiness involve two main groups of muscles: the zygomaticus major muscles, which pull up the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi muscles, which crinkle the corners of the eyes. In a Pan Am smile, the mouth does its duty. But the eyes fail to cooperate. Experiments show that people can usually tell the difference between genuine and fake smiles because of that difference around the eyes, which is why you can tell if someone is happy even behind their COVID mask.
The fact that our masks can be transparent doesn’t stop us from wearing them, and from expecting others around us to do so for the sake of politeness. This can exact a toll on us. In one experiment, psychologists asked participants to field fake customer complaints at a hypothetical railroad call center. They were told to either defend themselves when people were rude or remain polite and friendly no matter what. Those in the second group experienced higher blood pressure and cardiac stress than those in the first, and were worse at expressing themselves during conversation. This experiment is a specific example of what researchers call “emotional labor”—effort exerted just to maintain an acceptable demeanor—which has been found to lower well-being.
Perhaps you can relate to this if you have had a job or a relationship that stimulated strong or negative feelings that you were expected to suppress, day in and day out. This is physically and emotionally exhausting. You find your life satisfaction draining away—not only because of the unrewarding effort of pretending away your feelings but also because you are never allowed to bring your whole self into your career or your love.
Throwing out our COVID masks once and for all would be a relief. Our emotional masks are another matter, however. A world in which everyone expresses themselves completely freely is unimaginable, and probably undesirable. I, for one, would surely have been fired many times without my masks. But all of us can mask and unmask in healthier ways than we’re used to. Here are three rules for doing so.
1. Take a break from yourself.
All good vacations have one ingredient in common: They make our unrelenting responsibilities and schedules stop for a little while, so we can rest without being harassed by our own commitments. The same idea applies to the responsibility of being you. The energy required to maintain your identity is probably greater than you realize, and finding a way to relinquish it regularly can help you recharge. Engaging in hive activities, such as religion and group entertainment, is an easy way to take a vacation from yourself. Or if you have more time and money on your hands, you might follow in the footsteps of the millionaire Malcolm Forbes, who at age 48 took up motorcycling around the country in relative anonymity. The key is to release yourself from your own constraints.
2. Remove your mask around those you love the most.
Once, many years ago at preschool pickup, I watched my son play merrily with his friends for a few minutes before he caught sight of me. As soon as I called out to him, the smile left his face and he ran to me crying, telling me about all the horrors that had befallen him that day. “What gives?” I asked the teacher. She laughed and told me it’s classic: Kids are masked up all day but rip off the disguise as soon as their parents show up, because they know they are emotionally safe to do so.
The point is not that my son should have been unfailingly “authentic” at school; it’s that he needed to be authentic with me and knew he could be. And the same is true for you. Your most important relationships—the ones in which you invest the lion’s share of your time and energy, whether they’re personal or professional—require you to be able to be yourself. If you are masked up 24 hours a day, something needs to change.
3. Make sure you like what’s behind your mask.
As exhausting as keeping up the mask can be, letting it drop might be a terrifying prospect if you don’t especially like what it’s hiding. Maybe you are ashamed of carrying anger and hostility, or the sadness you keep bottled up inside. In cases like these, staying masked means missing out on an opportunity to face reality and make some positive changes. Research has shown that self-acceptance can lower anxiety and protect your mood in the face of setbacks—and isn’t associated with depression. You can even change personality traits you don’t like in yourself, but doing so requires honesty and conscious intervention.
In 1836, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which chronicles the life of a small-town parson who one day begins to wear a veil over his face. He will not give a reason, and refuses to remove it at any time, even when his fiancée asks him to. She eventually breaks off their engagement, and people avoid the parson’s company. Even dying sinners, as the minister gives them a last blessing, “shuddered at the veiled face so near their own.” He wears the veil for the rest of his life.
The story is absurd, almost Kafkaesque. And yet it forces any reader to consider their own black veil and the cost of it in life. “All through life that piece of crepe … had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love,” Hawthorne writes. The mask trapped the minister “in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
The problem wasn’t the parson’s literal veil but the barrier he voluntarily created between himself and everyone around him, including those he loved the most. Hawthorne’s point almost 200 years ago still stands today: Don’t let your metaphorical mask cut you off from yourself, and from the generative love of others that you need and deserve.