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From Nothing to Something: An Ode to Agency in the Time of COVID

bucket on sink

Sadly, the coronavirus (COVID) has shown us how little we actually control. It has affected people across the globe—young and old, healthy and ill. It’s not surprising, then, that activities promoting agency have proliferated during this time.

Though precise data lags, it appears more people have been baking, gardening, creating arts and crafts, and exercising than usual. Kettlebells and dumbbells are out of stock everywhere, seed companies are perpetually running low or sold out, and baking powder has seen a 450 percent increase in demand versus this time last year.

People are working from home and banking commute time. Other, more social sources of leisure have been unavailable. In combination, these two factors are certainly fueling at least part of the trend toward baking, gardening, creating, and exercise. Yet I suspect another reason—one that is more often overlooked, and perhaps more important—people are flocking to these activities is because they satisfy our basic needs for autonomy and mastery.

Whether in baking, gardening, creating arts and crafts, or exercising you start at point A, do a significant amount of work with your own two hands, and then end up at point B. This journey toward a concrete and tangible goal tends to leave a wonderful feeling in its wake.

“The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,” writes the philosopher Matthew Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. “It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

In the case of COVID and the examples given above: the bread has risen, the tomato has grown, the necklace has been made, the biceps muscle has become bigger and stronger.

In the early 1970’s, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan introduced self-determination theory (SDT for short). One of the most cited theories of the past five decades, SDT shows that humans are motivated, happy, and fulfilled when three basic needs are met:

  1. Autonomy: having some control over your environment and your life.
  2. Mastery: making tangible progress in your pursuits, being able to trace the outcome of your work back to your efforts.
  3. Belonging: feeling connected to a lineage or part of a tribe.

Thanks to COVID, people are more acutely than usual feeling the fragility and peril of a basic human existence. Thus, many are doubling down on meeting their basic needs. And with belonging not readily available (at least not in the traditional sense) due to quarantine and shelter-in-place orders, autonomy and mastery are what we have left.

Perhaps the lesson is that we’d be wise to spend time on activities that support autonomy and mastery not only now, but long after COVID has passed too. (And then we can also add in the belonging part.)

It’s not that activities like gardening, baking, creating, and exercising distract us from the ultimate uncertainty we live under. That’s neither their point nor a viable long-term solution for happiness. Rather, activities with a high degree of autonomy, mastery, and belonging offer us something fulfilling and meaningful amidst that uncertainty. The ultimate or spiritual realm may be impermanence, constantly evolving matter and energy. But when it comes to the day-to-day realm that we inhabit, we thrive when the bread has risen, the tomato has grown, the necklace has been made, and the biceps muscle has become bigger.


(For related posts, see: How to Make the Good Changes from Quarantine Stick, The Keys to Experiencing Meaning in Life, and Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports?)

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