Why So Many of Us Feel Happy and Optimistic Right Now

social distancing

By Troy Headrick

In my last blog, “Some Musings on the Concept of ‘Normal,’” I had an interesting exchange, in the comments section, with Danielle Davis, a really talented blogger who writes at The Nurse’s Heart.  Danielle wrote:

Thank you for the honest perspective.  I am personally enjoying this pause in “normal life” and looking forward with hope that our world will NEVER go back to the “normal” before.  This virus has taught us so many lessons I just hope enough people across the globe are listening and aware.

I responded with the following:

I have heard so many people say exactly what you just said.  I’ve said it and thought it many times myself.  One of the cultural battles going on right now is between those who want to push us really hard to think of human beings as these little units of production versus those of us who see that we can express ourselves in many varied ways—not just economically.  The former wants us to remain atomized while the latter sees great potential in collective action that is aimed at achieving a common good…

This conversation prompted today’s blog, a speculative piece on why so many people seem to be oddly at peace or even optimistic during this pandemic.

It is hard to make broad generalizations about an entire nation of people, but many have argued that American culture is greatly influenced by what is often called “rugged individualism,” a sense that one finds self-actualization by forging one’s own way alone, in a kind of metaphorical wilderness—think frontiersmen and women—rather than through some attachment to any sort of collective.  Such a value romanticizes the outcast and the rebel.  The push toward egocentric self-expression is thought to be the way this individual demonstrates that he or she is “free” from the encumbrances of “civilization.”  Such a person loses his or “freedom” to the extent he or she has to compromise or cooperate with others, to take their wishes into consideration.  Rugged individualism may also be a kind of national character trait in other places too.

Rugged individualism, when taken to an extreme, makes collective action difficult if not impossible.  The rugged individualist must, by definition, always champion his or her own preferences over the preferences expressed by any sort of whole.

I think many of us who feel positive about what’s happening right now are at least partly excited by the idea that we can connect with others by subordinating our selfish interests to the interests of others.  We stay at home and isolate because it’s a very tangible way to express our respect (and even love) of others.  We socially distance and wear masks because we have the health of others in mind.  The fact that doing these things is somewhat inconvenient makes the action that much more powerful.   We suffer so that others might not.  We inconvenience ourselves so that complete strangers might benefit.

In a country that worships the rugged individualist, it is hard to find the opportunity to connect with others, at the societal level, in any sort of meaningful way.  Selfishness and ego are lauded in the land of radical individualism.  Those of us who feel a kind of inner joy connecting with others through personal sacrifice are engaged in a celebration of altruism and selflessness.

Of course, this collective action aimed at achieving a larger, common good is upsetting the rugged individualists among us.  They think our push to think of others first smacks of something akin to “socialism,” and, in a sense, they are right.  This, of course, frightens them because we are demonstrating that another way of living is possible.  Plus, while we stay at home, we aren’t consuming and aren’t part of the consumer culture.

Ironically, those of us engaged in collective action toward a common good will ultimately safeguard rugged individualists.  So, the true hero is not he or she who stands out, but the they that stand together.

I look forward to your comments.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

68 thoughts on “Why So Many of Us Feel Happy and Optimistic Right Now

  1. This is so true. And for some, staying at home gave them enough time to develop a new skill or they finally started doing the thing that they always been wanting to do. Great article, Troy!


    1. Very good point, Marron. I’ve seen lots of stories about people doing really creative things during this period. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. I think people’s patterns of consumerism and consumption around the States or around the world are fascinating during these crazy times. What are the things that the people themselves feel are essential? Spending on food has gone up in part because of all the food shopping and in part because food prices are getting higher. But what is essential for one group – like being able to go to a bar or get a haircut – is not necessarily essential for another group of people. In fact, I am not sure if our modern day definitions of consumer behavior even has the capability of parsing our behavior into more specific subgroups. These subgroups could be defined via age or could be defined via level of risk they are willing to take on or by their need to protect and continue their livelihoods. So far as I understand things, economic models talk about consumer behavior as one thing or one entity. But within that definition of consumerism and consumption are huge variations surrounding consumer beliefs about what is essential to their households or not. I am wondering if our economic models will have to evolve to cover subsectors of consumers and consumerism. Just a question for today’s times?

    1. The health of the American economy has always been rooted in consumption. What happens when people can’t or won’t get out and spend money? Well, we’re seeing the repercussions of such a situation right now. One more way America looks to be very vulnerable. Thanks for the comment.

  3. What a thoughtful post, Troy. This nails it. As a fellow American, I see the “rugged individualism” you describe. It’s rather unfortunate that so many view this “grit” and compassion as mutually exclusive.

    “We suffer so that others might not.  We inconvenience ourselves so that complete strangers might benefit.”

    This is the mindset of a society I want to live in. This is the exact idea I want to nurture in my son.

    This. is. it.👏🏻

    1. I’ve long wished that America (and the rest of the world for that matter) could be ruled by women. I think politics would look a lot different. The world would likely be somewhat kinder and gentler. The feeling of a common good would be more widely felt and shared. Unfortunately, because political and economic life is dominated by men, there’s an ugly macho element that is quite closely related to the rugged individualism I wrote about. Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. I believe the reason for many feeling contentment is due to our adherence to the patterns and schemes of this world that we are deceived into thinking are normal have been lifted at present. The problem being as I see it is that once the virus abates, because our hearts are not connected to it’s TRUE source of life, the merry go round will once again start up and will, because it is stated that it will, rotate faster and faster towards the next crisis bigger than this present one we are experiencing.

  5. Hi Troy. I quite agree with you. The pandemic has blown the ego out of many of us (not without shock and not without pain), and we’ve suddenly found ourselves faced with our own fragility and mortality, not as “my problem” but as a condition which we share with the whole of humanity. Our self-centred approach to life has been put wildly into perspective, and therefore we feel liberated. Sad and afraid, yes, anxious, joined in collective grief, yet more free and even joyful, all simultaneously. I do hope we learn the lesson!

    1. You put it wonderfully! I wished that I had said it as well as you did. Thanks so much for your great contribution. By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so we can have a look.

  6. Hi Troy,
    This is awesome and really speaks to what I was feeling! Thank you for taking this further.
    I would also say that this time is allowing time to connect with friends and family in a very different and meaningful way. Being not so busy all the time allows for more opportunity to connect. And I don’t take it for granted either, quite the opposite. I cherish the time I spend talking to my loved ones.
    Thank you for your perspective and thanks for the kudos!!

  7. A couple of things came to mind when reading this blog post, Troy. First is the propensity for young girls to be attracted to the “bad boy” when the reality turns out to be it’s the solid, family oriented guy they eventually seek. For me that’s a microcosm of society at large. We profess to revere the “rugged individualist” but depend largely on those more reliable to work with society.

    I believe humans, in general, to be gregarious beings whose existence is enhanced by contact with others. Also, the old adage that we’re stronger together than we are alone certainly seems to fit the majority. I’m one that’s hoping our attitudes and focus will have been altered toward having closer connections and leaning toward understanding and love.

    1. You make some extremely interesting points here. American popular culture has long revered “the bad boy,” the rebel without a cause. In fact, though, it’s the quiet, unassuming types that really make things work. I guess I wish there was a greater sense of “the collective” in the US. I wonder how long we can continue to have national coherence in a time we we feel so divided and polarized. Thanks so much for your interesting comments. i always enjoy reading them.

  8. Its seems quite contradictory but with social distancing becoming the new normal, relationships have become more meaningful than just superficial. Hearts being connected to hearts.

    1. “Hearts being connected to hearts” is a lovely way to put it. And I’ve felt that same irony. Social distancing is actually helping some of us feel closer and more connected to others. You’ve made a keen observation. Thanks.

      1. Hi Troy.
        My observation comes from being grounded in ancient Hebrew where there is no word for mind, it is heart.
        Heart to heart is realational when the word heart is substituted for the word mind it becomes about ourselves and we look to our own needs instead of the needs of others.
        I agree also with you regarding women’s hearts, they appear more naturally compassionate and relational, however, looking at the heart of my 8 year old son, you would say he had a female heart, I believe the deception of the macho Male stereotype robs men and if like me it causes much untold grief, one of the reasons probably why suicide is higher in males.

      2. Thanks so much for sharing your story and your insights. Do you blog? If so, I’d like to read some of your work. Why not leave a link here so others can check it out too?

      3. Hi Troy.
        I started blogging at the beginning of lock down, however that was not my real intention I wanted to build a web site based on my life, past and new beliefs, how they were changed and how they have been influenced by http://www.rediscoveryoftheheart.com/ and its founder Larry Napier who I was introduced to some ten years ago when my heart was changed at 47 and through Larry and his insights, learnt and understood how we are made and probably more importantly how we are shaped and moulded by the programming of our hearts, once I got it, it connected up all the dots of my life and my heart aches for those who now feel like i felt and what they could experience now, Larry and his site are not the answer, that comes from much further back and higher up.

        You will find my site at https://wordpress.com/view/itstheheartthatmattersfoundation.wordpress.com…………………………..to be honest I have not blogged for a while because I haven’t felt compelled to do so, my heart has been elsewhere.

        One thought i did have though while reading some of the replies was regarding masks, many are now physically wearing one to protect themselves from this unseen virus, however, each and everyone of us walks round wearing an unseen mask, hiding that inside which we dont want others to see and for the most part it is because we are believing some lie to be true that causes great anxiety and fear inside, knowing what our heart is, where it is, how to get to it, the language it speaks and that it is a vessel to receive from the one further back and higher up to have life, great blessings come.

        In another one of your replies you say, “i hope we can see this as a learning opportunity” that however is the problem for we are blind to see the depth of this till the scales are removed, which in writing this, as just spoke to me to keep writing because someone somewhere might just need to read it for the eyes of their hearts to be finally opened, which actually happened to me recently while my heart was elsewhere.

        I look forward to reading more of your blogs in the future and connecting again with the images and thoughts of your heart.

  9. “Socially distance and wear masks because we have the health of others in mind” – wonder what logic could flip the position from “not have” to “have” – “others in mind”, unless they already had it deep inside, which merely has surfaced now.

    1. Thanks so much for asking such an interesting question. I always enjoy your comments because I find them extremely intellectually stimulating.

  10. I have a very different take on the role of “rugged individualism” versus altruism and collectivism in our culture, and on their respective roles in this pandemic. I’ve written on various aspects of my perspective elsewhere (see https://genagorlin.com/2020/03/29/covid19-vs-the-american-spirit/ , for example), but I’ll just sum up by saying: it’s only by the grace of “rugged individualism” that any of us have been able to indulge in the kind of optimism and warm and fussy social connectedness that you describe. It’s by the grace of the selfish, individualistic tech innovators who gave us WordPress and Zoom and Facebook and Twitter that we’re able to have conversations like this across state and national borders in the midst of a global pandemic. And it’s by the grace of all the “lone,” “rebel” capitalists and scientists and inventors that we have the luxury to selflessly shelter at home while having access to Netflix, Amazon Fresh, a working refrigerator and microwave, hot water, an iPhone, and a doctor willing to see us via tele-health if we’re not feeling well. I wonder if you’d be speaking in such cheerily benevolent tones if you were stuck in an actually socialist country like Venezuela or my native USSR during a global pandemic. Instead you get to sit in the luxury of your American home and decry the people whose self-actualizating efforts made it possible for you to do so. Here’s a great piece that argues (compellingly, in my view) that it’s precisely the moral code you’re espousing here that’s cost us so many lives and livelihoods in this pandemic: https://medium.com/@dwatkins3/we-dont-deserve-builders-bc7ba3539d7e . Hope you find this a worthwhile perspective to consider.

    1. Hi. Thanks for your comment. I’m aware that I’m extremely blessed that I can remain home and work. I also come from a working-class family. None of my parents have college degrees. Additionally, I grew up with an uneducated single mother who struggled her whole life to provide us with what she could. I am a political progressive because I understand the the masses are exploited. When I speak of socialism, I prefer to look at the success stories out there. You could have mentioned Denmark or the Scandinavian countries in your post. Instead, you picked only those places where socialism has failed, mostly because were ruled by authoritarians and not because of the economic system. When I look at the US, I see a place that looks to be failing and capitalism is playing a pivotal role in that failure. By the way, I have lived in countries that had extremely strong social safety nets and felt very much at ease in those places. It’s only in America that I feel most vulnerable. I am in no way advocating throwing the working class out into the economy so they can live in fear and potentially become sick. Doing so is an immoral act. Most countries with a more socialist outlook are not as cruel as that. They do things to assure a livable income through the challenging time. I will check out the link you sent.

      By the way, I’m aware that creatives are the producers of great things. I won’t dispute that. I do dispute the fact that we have to create an environment where the “geniuses” get to thrive while the rest of us suffer. That’s either/or thinking. It certainly doesn’t have to be either/ or.

  11. I think you’re definitely on to something here. Your last line especially speaks to me, however, I want to say that what I find beautiful is that we can all be individuals, but come together as one to stand in solidarity for others. Even those “rugged individualists” among us have been able to show their love and support by staying at home. Of course, there will always be those who stand apart or only think of themselves. But I think this pandemic has definitely taught us all a valuable lesson.

    1. I hope we can see this as a learning opportunity. If we experience all this suffering and the various forms it’s taking without growing, then this, indeed, has been an exceptionally tragic time. The way we are going to get this behind us–and return to “normal”; although, I would argue the old normal was failing–is if we band together, if we work as a collective. Otherwise, a bunch of selfish people will make the kind of concerted required a total impossibility. Thanks so much for your comment.

  12. I feel like we socialize more as it’s one of the values we can’t ignore. Busyness doesn’t take all our time any more and we feel too free to be ourselves and enjoy simple things. I like it but I hate being kind of needy these days

    1. I’m completely aware that I am lucky that I can work at home, but my wife isn’t, and I worry about when she has to return to work (if she does return). I grew up in a working-class family–neither one of my parents have college degrees–and my parents divorced so I lived with a single mother who never made a lot of money. America–are you American?–really needs to get its priorities straight. It needs to quit favoring the rich in every way and start really helping those who need and deserve help. Thank you so much for your comment.

      1. You are right, Troy, I’m not from here, I’m from Ukraine where most of the time you have to rely on others to survive. It’s good and bad, but it feels good to belong to a bigger group of people you can rely on whether it is family, church or other type of community

  13. What an insight …… its feels good to be human again.
    whatever that means, im more connected to my family and im focusing more on what’s important. One thing I realised is I spent moreeeee on stuff that I didn’t even need . Great time to reflect and be born again.

    1. Right! I totally agree! I’m realizing just how much time and energy I was spending rushing around and doing things that now feel quite nonsensical. Thanks for the comment. By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here?

  14. Thank u for finding me and following me. I was really upset that I lost all my followers, after the shutdown of my blog. Couldn’t refresh my payments so WordPress closed it. Luckily I made a new blog and transferred all my content here. But sadly lost all my followers. Thank u soooo muvh for finding me. I really missed your intriguing and mind opening content. Lot’s of respect. Regards. Amber Iqbal from Pakistan…

    1. It’s my pleasure. Post a link to your site here. It will be a good way to find new readers. Thanks for contributing to this interesting discussion.

  15. I think you are quite right. This is a very insightful post. But we must not forget the millions who are suffering because of Covid-19 and the lockdowns. The economic harm is real, and it will take much effort and rethinking to get out of it. Is it an opportunity for a more “communistic” or “socialist” world, or will the old values of “entrepreneurship” take over again, as they are trying to do already?

    1. I think “socialism”–the sort practiced in places like Denmark and the Scandinavian countries–can easily coexist with innovation and such. I don’t think it has to be either/or. For example, many of those of those place that have a stronger sense of the “common good” are very creative. (I just watched a documentary about how Finland, Norway, and Sweden are creating basement gardens, using fish excrement–produced onsight–as fertilizer.) These experiments are so successful that their originators are now turning their idea into something very lucrative. There are many such examples in the world. Thanks for you comment.

      1. You are right. I think I used the wrong word. What I really meant were the faceless giants of capitalism that are doing so much harm to the environment, and us, at the same time as raking in huge profits, avoiding taxes, and ignoring the greater good for all.

    1. I go through periods of optimism and then times of pessimism. If America suffers the kind of catastrophic loss (both in terms of human life and economic well-being) that I predict it will, then I don’t see any possibility for us to return to the old normal. By the way, this weekend, I watched a really interesting interview with a professor who specializes in the history of the great pandemics. He pointed out that the really great ones always serve as catalysts for all sorts of transformations. For example, many of our modern sewage systems and building codes came as a result of past pandemics–who would have thought? I think it’s possible we might see some amazingly interesting changes that come out of this. Thanks for your comment. I always enjoy our discussions.

  16. As a passionate individual, I’m happy to read your thoughts. This unusual time is reminding me to think of others and our wonderful Mother Earth. Beyond the physical, such as exercise, creation, and rest, I now understand on a much deeper level why I’m feeling much better now… Thank you

    1. I understand, too, why I’m feeling better. It’s because circumstances have forced me out of the rat race. It was a race that always made me feel uncomfortable because I viscerally understand how unhealthy and inhumane it was and is. Plus, the rat race turns us into rats. It’s just that simple. Thank you for your comment.

      1. It’s nice these circumstances have given you the realization of the rat race that makes you feel uncomfortable being a part of. So now, I guess you can take steps to make the changes to enjoy the race or do something else brotha… Cheers

  17. I just had this very conversation with my mother today. Those of us that are hopeful need to remain so when we come out of this. We need to lead by example and show others the way. Thank you for letting us know we’re not alone.

    1. Unfortunately, in America, everything feels very adversarial because we are so politically and culturally polarized. I’d love to be able to have the sort of discussion I had in my blog with some of those who view the wearing of masks as some sort of infringement of their human rights. If they want to assert they have a human right to put themselves and everyone else in harm’s way, then I wouldn’t even know how to begin such a conversation. Do you have any suggestions? By the way, I really liked your comment.

      1. I’ve heard people use seat belts and helmets as examples of safety measures people accept. A seat belt isn’t just about saving your own life, it’s to ensure you don’t become a projectile and kill someone else. I use to think helmets on motorcycles were stupid until I was informed someone has to clean up the bits of brain on the street and then have therapy for it. I’m not sure how to get people to understand that we are in this together other than leading by example and pointing things out where I can. May we all realize the benefit of working together instead of fighting for a line in the metaphorical sand.

  18. I believe “normalcy” is relative. Life is continuous change even in the best of times. Although there may be people who think life for society in general will be better for this virus, I have serious doubts because of what I have witnessed during the restrictions of this time. Still, I am hoping that I’m wrong.

  19. Great article, lots to think about. I think there can be a blend of both, individualism and concern for the common good but I agree and have seen that initial reactions are in one direction or the other depending on people’s core values. Personally, I hope, and believe we are evolving into a more loving, caring society.

    1. I don’t see how we come out of all this loss of life and wealth without being profoundly transformed by the experience. The question is–will these transformations be positive or negative or mixed? I mostly feel optimistic when I consider this question. Time will tell, though. Thank you so much for your comment.

  20. I love this! And I agree, I think that in hard times human nature reveals itself at its best (and worst). I’ve felt more connected to my neighborhood than I’ve ever felt before and I’ve seen and participated in multiple community based actions to help the ones who are taking the biggest hit because of the pandemic. But at the same time, we see governments putting profit over people, bailing out polluting industries while turning a blind eye to all the people who lost their job, or who lost their loved one. I definitely wouldn’t say I feel happy and 100% I don’t feel optimistic. But I do think this crisis awakened something in us, this eagerness to be connected to the community, this empathy towards others. Wether this will shape our future after this… I don’t know.

  21. Thank you Troy for your post. I am concerned about the pandemic and it’s affect on the country. My concern is born out of the wider context that envelopes healthcare, economics, sociology, psychology, and politics, to name a few. There’s not a single concern that I have, but a multi-faceted concern. In the end, I want to help others and if it means sacrificing for others I want to be a help not a hindrance. It’s hard to say what the risk is with so much misinformation. There’s a cost to our response. What is the right cost? What is the risk? I have some at risk family members in my house. I am sacrificing for them. I hope I would do the same if not for them.

    1. Trying to get that balance right is extraordinarily difficult. Based on all the things I’ve learned so far during this very interesting (and scary) time is that there can’t be full economic health until the public health situation is considerable more controlled and better managed. I don’t see people engaging economically if they look around and see people falling sick all around them. Economics requires (for better or for worse in the American context) people willing to consume. When people are scared, they “contract,” they pull their heads and limbs in and act like turtles. This is the way the “fight or flight” system works. People don’t fight when they are confronted with an adversary they can’t see, don’t fully understand, and presents such a terrifying opposition. Thanks so much for your comment. You really pushed me to think about this, and I’m wondering if an idea I’ve expressed here can’t serve as larger piece of writing going forward. By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so we can check out your writing.

  22. Sir @Tony_Headrick I now read ur article. And actually among the people who think that we all NEED EACH OTHER; in one way or another. Whether we like it or not. I so believe that if we were to live alone in this world ( and do each and everything ourselves). God Almighty would have created our own small worlds in this big universe. We might be living in Caves and all we would be in need of have come to us , without any effort. But its NOT the way things are. We need each other. Both physically and physiologically. Let me explain a little: physically means we need someone we can be in competition with – good competition that is – to keep us ALIVE. While, physiologically means: Each and Every one of us needs some one that we can talk to; as a Friend, soul mate etc.
    Thus, proves my point that we all need each other.

    1. The old saying “No man is an island” comes to mind. I agree wholeheartedly with just about everything you said. Thanks so much for contributing to this conversation.

  23. This is so true! Like someone above said that caught my eye, the economy has dipped but these times have brought out more from me that I never knew possible. It’s been a time I’ve been more connected to myself and to everything around me. I felt very underconfident for most of my teenage years and now almost nearing 22 I still feel that way but its definitely gotten better during these times! I feel bad for liking all the time that I have but Im honestly so frickin grateful for it! 😀

    1. Are you American? Do you live in America? If so, do you find it frustrating that so much time is spend talking about economics and work and making money while almost no attention is paid to happiness and developing connectedness to others? I certainly am frustrated by all this. I wish we could learn to reprioritize. So many people are so unhappy and yet we keep doing the same things over and over again and being so screwed up in what we value. That’s my rant for the day! Thanks for your comment.

      1. I’m sorry but I’m not from America. I don’t know if this was directed only to your American readers but I strongly think this is a global thing. Like you said, no one really bothers about the real things as opposed to bothering only about the money and how to go up the ladder. No emphasis on the journey at all!

  24. You got me especially with “Ironically, those of us engaged in collective action toward a common good will ultimately safeguard rugged individualists.” I have been trying to tell this to people. At times like these, we need collective moves and should be able to sacrifice ‘individual rights’ temporarily.

    1. You are a wise and responsible person trying to educate those around you. When I look at all those pool parties and such that happened over the recent holiday weekend, where people were crowded together and not social distancing and such, I feel frustration and sadness. You are around grad students all the time? What is your impression of American youth? Are they as self-centered as they sometimes appear or is something else going on? I really am interested in this.

      1. Because I am in Linguistics, we have a lot of international students in our departments speaking different languages. So, I don’t know if I can make a lot of comments on that. Even my American grad student friends are not self-centered. But there is still a difference between international and American grad students. International students are still more community-oriented and we talk about our feelings a lot more.

  25. Wow. This introduced another perspective into why I’ve been wondering I’ve been feeling happy and optimistic during this time. The juxtaposition of rugged individualism and sacrifice for the joy of the whole is something that’s both obvious on a superficial level (we social distance so things get back to normal faster) but also not so obvious on a spiritual level (we social distance to respect others and to form a connection in our fast-paced, materialistic society). I personally hope that society as well as myself, can achieve a happy medium. Let’s see how this goes!

    -Andrew Gavin from Takes One

    1. Thanks, Andrew. Is “Takes One” the title of your blog? If so, I’m going to check out your writing because you come across as a wise person. Take care and stay safe.

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