Searching For Meaning In The Coronavirus Age

By Chris Yeh and Jennifer Aaker, General Atlantic Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business

For millions of Americans, the novel coronavirus (or Covid-19) went from minor, far-off worry to life-altering disaster, seemingly overnight.  Perhaps it was three weeks ago, when the NBA suspended its season, followed closely by nearly every other sports league or organization. Or perhaps it was just days later when six counties in Northern California issued America’s first “shelter in place” or lockdown order.  However you experienced it, the impact on your life has likely been shocking in speed and scope.

But in the wake of the initial shock and fear, we’ve seen a new trend–the desire to help.  We’ve seen numerous grassroots efforts to find, donate to, and even sew protective masks for healthcare professionals.  Online, offers to help older or otherwise at-risk neighbors with their shopping and other errands abound.  These heartwarming efforts are important, not just because they help reduce or ameliorate the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but because they provide volunteers with an essential resource that is in short supply, even in good times: meaning.

The coronavirus looks likely to be devastating; even if we manage to prevent the kind of death toll that characterized the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic fallout will probably push the world into a global recession.  Yet paradoxically, negative experiences can play an important role in finding meaning in our lives. Recent behavioral research has found that when people experience disruption in their lives, they actively seek to find meaning by bonding with others, re-embracing their values, and incorporating the disruption into the story they tell themselves about their life.

The coronavirus presents a double-whammy: Not only has it disrupted our lives, but it has forced us into physical isolation at a time when we would normally seek comfort in the company of others.  Social isolation is associated with reduced meaning, lower well-being, and higher rates of morbidity. In contrast, helping others promotes personal well-being and a sense of mattering.

The research aligns with what we sense from the actions taken by those in our communities.  People want to do something about the coronavirus, but that energy is unfocused. Without the right guidelines, that energy might be wasted. After 9/11, blood donations surged to nearly 500,000 units…but only 258 units were actually needed to treat survivors of the attack, and since blood is only good for 42 days, nearly all of it was simply thrown away.

Toward our search for meaning, here are some simple guidelines, based on research, that will help you channel your desire to help, in a way that increases your positive impact and your well-being:

  • Involve others in your journey.  In an age of social distancing, we all need to get better at distant socializing.  Bringing people together around an effort to have a positive impact during this crisis is quite possibly the best socializing you could participate in right now. Four design principles that drive action: Make it easy to take immediate action.  Make it fun. Tailor the options to people’s own idiosyncratic resources.  And finally, build an open movement, where no one has to ask permission to act.

You probably aren’t one of the brave people on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the only thing you can contribute to that fight is to stay home and watch Netflix.  All of us should find ways to make our own unique contributions, drive towards concrete impact, and enable others to do the same – with you. Not only will this help our great shared effort, but it will allow you to make the days ahead more meaningful.  When you look back on this period, and tell the story of your life, you will know and be proud of the part you played.

(This post was a collaboration with my friend and fellow Silicon Guild member, Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker. Thanks Jennifer!)

4 thoughts on “Searching For Meaning In The Coronavirus Age

  1. One thing I’ve been finding meaningful lately is to dedicate focused time to praying for the dead, the sick, and various people on the front lines. Whatever that prayer looks like for you (mine is more like nonverbal meditation), you may find that it is more powerful than your logical mind expects. (I also recently read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which helps with the logical/articulated explanation.) And it may illuminate what those actions are that are best for you to take.

    1. Chelsea: In the face of a pandemic that we can’t control, seeking solace and meaning in prayer is helpful, regardless of one’s beliefs, if it gives you the strength and conviction to keep going.

  2. Laurel Newton

    This is one of the silver linings for me in my social isolation, I finally have much more time for things like prayer, often for very specific needs of folks I know who have been more impacted by the virus than I have. In addition to helping out elderly neighbors and friends.

  3. […] P.P.P.S. I very much enjoyed this article from Chris Yeh and Jennifer Aaker, Searching for Meaning in the Corona Virus Age. […]

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