- By Ian Bradley
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Just before nodding off to sleep last night my wife turned over and asked me: “are you happy?”
As with most men hearing this question, instant alarm bells went off. With later elaboration, what she really meant was, now during this weird, self-isolating, social-distancing Covid 19 time, was I happy?
It got me thinking and after some introspection, I would say that I’m pretty satisfied.
I’m lucky enough to still have a regular paycheck augmented by a reduced, but still active private practice, so economically things are OK. Socially, more old friends have reached out to me than I ever thought possible. I’ve developed regular exercise and leisure activities including an under-construction above-ground garden. In short, I’m being, as we psychologists now say, resilient.
But, I don’t think that I’m really happy. Like most people, I’ve organized so much of my life to staying out of harm’s way -social distancing, not seeing friends, not playing golf etc. Most psychologists would say; ah, you’re obviously not happy because you’re missing all those pleasurable activities that gave you so-called hedonic pleasure.
However, I think it’s more than that. And supporting my view is recent data from Neilsen Music/MRC data showing the downloads and plays of new albums and tracks, even by major artists, are significantly down. Apparently, on Spotify and other platforms, people are in fact listening to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees. That is, music from their youth.
How to explain this? One answer might come from a less known but articulate psychological school of thought examining the central role of death in our existence. Under the rubric of Terror Management Theory, Sheldon Soloman and others argue that music, and in fact all culture, is a constructed fabrication with one desired goal – to hide the awareness of our own mortality. When talk of sickness and possible death is all encompassing, why not hide out in the comfort-filled music days of our youth.
Perhaps, but the temporary time regression in musical taste might reflect a more general turning away from the future, from planning, aspiring, goal-setting and yes, happiness.
A long time ago, BF Skinner, the founder of radical behaviorism, whose rat running eclipsed his philosophy, preached that if your life is organized to avoid things, real or imagined, then you’re hampered- hampered by stress, anxiety and inhibition. It was only execution of behaviour in the service of achieving future goals that fosters happiness.
I think that’s what I’m missing. I’ve had too many conversations terminating with: ”and when this ends, we’ll get together” or ..”when this ends, we’ll meet to discuss, or start working on…” In other words, it’s not just sickness from Covid-19, nor the loss of fun things but rather, the protective and defensive lifestyle we have adopted. Preoccupation with avoidance and being safe, shifts our attentional focus inward-away from the future.
I hope that this theme of being safe is only a short-term phenomenon, something that we can readily slough off like the masks and social distancing when things return to normal. We need to re-discover the joy of looking to the future with plans and aspirations of desired goals- then happiness will return.