Like so many of you, for many months I’ve been in close physical proximity with just a tiny isolated silo of people: my husband, our adult children (both of whom work for our company), and four other team members, who meet with us twice a week at the office.
Otherwise, my in-person connection with other human beings is limited to a brief exchange with people at our open-air market or a food store, or a nod to the people I pass when I go out for a walk.
Perhaps that’s why I’m particularly thankful this Thanksgiving weekend. The lack of physical contact with other human beings has made any sort of contact with our nearest and dearest ever more urgent and also, in a sense, provided us with a hierarchy of needs that may not have been so apparent to us before.
I meet weekly with two Power of Eight groups over Zoom, and many of the group, particularly those who live alone, consider that connection the highlight of their week, even if that connection is just an electronic one.
The other day my husband, who holds a degree in philosophy, was talking to me about the differences between the various Viennese schools of psychotherapy in determining what exactly drives human beings.
There was Alfred Adler, inspired by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proposed that the driving force of all human motivation is a ‘will to power’, such as through money, prestige or status, which he considered even more basic than the will to survive.
And of course, Sigmund Freud, who countered that the driving force of man is a will to pleasure.
But it was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, who proposed that humankind’s most fundamental urge is a search for meaning. Why exactly are we here? And what makes for a life well lived? Only if we fail to find meaning to our lives do we instead compensate with pleasure.
In 2009, Mary Daly and Daniel Wilson of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, teaming up with Norman Johnson of the Census Bureau, examined suicide deaths in the United States to see if they had anything to do with income.
At first glance, it appeared that the less income someone had, the more likely he was to kill himself. Closer analysis, however, proved this conclusion to be premature.
As it happened, the richest areas of America had the greatest risk of suicide.
When Daly, Wilson, and Johnson drilled down further, the one issue that ultimately proved to have a connection with the desire to commit suicide was the effect of comparing one’s own income to that of others around you. And the richer everyone was around you, the more miserable you were likely to be.
In the crudest terms, for every $10,000 more your neighbors make than you do, your suicide probability increases by 7.5 per cent.
It wasn’t about the money itself – these were all highly affluent people who had everything they probably needed or wanted. It was all about belonging and connection.
Now compare that study with one examining poor people during hard financial times.
A sampling of Americans in the lowest income bracket suffered from virtually no stress about their financial circumstances, so long as they had two means of support: a strong spiritual connection and a strong community.
Even when engaged in a daily struggle to survive, they were able to manage as long as they didn’t do so alone.
But perhaps the most compelling piece of research of all about the most fundamental of human drives was carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who wanted to examine the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure and happiness –what we’d normally define as the good life – compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.
The researchers gathered together a group of 160 healthy volunteers, after separating them into two groups.
The first were people who were pleasure-seekers, who lived for their own happiness and satisfaction above all.
The others were those who felt that life had a sense of direction and meaning, they’d had experiences that had challenged them to become a better person, and they felt they had something to contribute to society.
Although the members of the two groups had many emotional similarities, and all claimed to be highly content and not depressed, their gene expression profile couldn’t have been more different.
Among the pleasure seekers, the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illnesses, and lower levels of gene expression involved in antibody synthesis, the body’s response to outside attack.
If you hadn’t known their histories, you would have concluded that these were the gene profiles of people exposed to a great deal of adversity, or in the midst of difficult life crises: a low socioeconomic status, social isolation, diagnosis with a life-threatening disease, or a recent bereavement.
These people were all perfect candidates for a heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, even cancer. In a few years, they would be dropping like flies.
Those whose lives were not as affluent or stress-free but were purposeful and filled with meaning, on the other hand, had low inflammatory markers and stress-related gene expression down-regulated, both indicative of rude good health.
If you had to choose one path over the other, the researchers concluded, choosing a life of meaning and service over one just chasing pleasure is undeniably better for your health.
Most of us are taught that the single most important impulse we have is to survive at all costs, or to be ‘happy,’ but our need to connect with others and contribute something to the world is perhaps the one element that gives our life the greatest meaning.
Of all the Viennese schools of psychology, perhaps Frankl’s is closest to the truth. But all of them may have overlooked one other important factor.
Deep connection and belonging are the qualities perhaps most essential to human nature.
I’m not saying that I’m thankful there was a pandemic. But a crisis like this always reveals what is most essential to us and what we have to be most thankful for.