A time of crisis couldn’t be a better one to engage in the ‘Pursuit of Helpfulness’
Today I have been reflecting on the lessons learned so far from the Coronavirus pandemic and feel compelled to perhaps provide a somewhat different perspective on this crisis if I possibly can.
The first thing that comes to mind is the human instinct to seek happiness – to light up what neuroscientists call “pleasure centers” in our brains — which is a major driver of consumerism. And, yes, for all of us this “pursuit of happiness” – at least on a material level — is one in which we seem to be constantly engaged. An example is the way getting a new car makes you feel so good, especially when you first drive it out of the dealership and bring it home, hoping to draw admiring glances from friends and neighbors, like you always see in commercials. (How long does that feeling last?). Or how gratifying it can be to go the store and buy yourself a snazzy new shirt jacket and shoes, or to find the exact right item you’ve been looking for to give someone as a gift at a great price online.
But I can’t help wondering if this constant quest to light up our pleasure centers might be the biggest deterrent to containing this still unknown new threat to our individual and collective health – and whether a major rethinking of how we go about pursuing happiness might possibly be a key to our society’s getting through it (especially for all of us that make our living selling things to consumers and trying to figure out how to sell more).
This virus has really challenged my thought processes, and made me face up to many things about myself that I’ve tried to ignore up to now, from my lack of patience to how often I am driven to go out unnecessarily, have many more meetings with people than I even realized or probably need to, and how many times I go to the local coffee shop to pay three times more than what my premium coffee cost at home. This, in turn, has led me to the realization that I am part of the problem.
Admittedly, this lockdown has been super difficult for me, and yesterday my wife put it in perspective. We both have parents in their late 80s, who are currently alive and well, and grandchildren ranging in age from 6 months to 11 years, three of whom suffer from allergy- compromised immune systems. She said that every time I go out (perhaps in a failed pursuit of happiness) I bring home the pathogens of everybody with whom I came into contact, as well as everyone that was around the surface of the table at which I sat. She was right — I have been irresponsible in not living up to the “social distancing lockdown,” and I have compromised my parents’ and grandchildren’s health, as well as hers, by continuing to shop, have meetings and walk around our little town visiting its coffee shops and bakeries.
But that is done, because as of today the pursuit of happiness has to be changed to a pursuit of “helpfulness” — of being useful in the fight to overcome this plague — and my point in this is that all of you very successful business people need to think about how you can transition from consumerism to ‘communityism’. By that, I mean focusing on how each of us can help society in ways we might never have even thought of.
Can I, for example, help get N95 masks in this country at affordable prices this week? The answer is yes. With longtime friends and associates, we can activate a supply chain today, along with thermometers and rapid-testing products that are reportedly available now from sources in China. Can our very accomplished team come up with a creative food program to feed elementary school kids who, without a hot lunch at school, will miss their main meal of their day (as hard as that may be to conceive of in a nation this wealthy)? Could this be done in collaboration with caterers across the country who are now being impacted with all the events being closed? What helpful new approach can you come up with to be useful during these trying times? (One prominent example that comes to mind is celebrity chef Jose Andres, who has made a point of showing up in the wake of various disasters and feeding those affected by them.)
What I am saying is that you’ll find the feeling of being useful and beneficial to society in the midst of a health crisis and an accompanying lockdown much more fulfilling than the pursuit of consumption-driven happiness ever was.
My wife called me to task yesterday, and today I couldn’t wait to get up and learn, research the issues and then work on creative ways to make myself helpful that I have the connections and ability to address.
This research, by the way, was extremely sobering. Among the things I learned was that we in the U.S. do not have enough ICU hospital beds or ventilators to deal with this pandemic, and the next four weeks are going to be the worst. So everything points to our planning on being isolated for at least a month and focusing during that time on making ourselves as useful as possible – even if it’s just taking the trouble to check on a friend or neighbor and seeing if you can be of any help.
My ultimate goal for myself is now is to learn how I can harness the pursuit of helpfulness in any way I can, especially in a time of need such as this. That’s where the real sense of gratification, the truly fulfilling aspects of human life reside – or as the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy put it, “The true happiness of a man is having a clear conscience and being useful for humanity.”
And if that sounds difficult to do while practicing “social distancing,” you might also remember that (as the website Morning Brew reminded me), “If you’re feeling bummed about being stuck at home for the foreseeable future, remember that Shakespeare wrote King Lear when the plague closed theaters. You, too, can contribute something of similar value to humankind.”
So my advice would be to take advantage of this time not only of pestilence, but of isolation and deprivation, to start doing what you were really meant to do by harnessing your particular talents and resources in a positive way for society, any way you are able – even if it’s coordinating your efforts with others via the Internet.
So stop fretting about your favorite sports being off the air or your favorite watering hole, gym or theater being shuttered, and get busy doing things useful things that might never have occurred to you in normal times. I can assure you I have already begun to explore many such opportunities over this weekend, and am looking forward to having the time in my home office to continue to work on them. And let me know if I can help you in any way.