How a pandemic could redefine personal success

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 04/22/2020, 2:30 PM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
(TULSA, Okla.) How do we value our success? By who we are? What we have? Or what we do? And how could living through a pandemic change that? Alexie Foster is a licensed professional counselor who founded the company Healing, Actually. “We have a really unique opportunity here where we can really get quiet,” Foster said. “And really do some reflection that we have to work very hard otherwise to make time for.” According to Merriam-Webster, success is defined as a “favorable or desired outcome. Also: the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” So, generally speaking, people consider themselves successful when they have money, popularity or superiority amongst their peers. Have one, and you very often have another or maybe even all three. How do we demonstrate our success? It’s no secret that America is a nation of consumers, much of which includes spending money we don’t really have, to measure and increase our idea of success within our society. Average spending per American was $61,224 in 2018, up 1.9 % from the previous year, according to the latest information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, that number is less than what most Americans are making. The Bureau of Labor reported the median weekly earnings of full-time workers were $936 in the last quarter of 2019, or $48,672 a year. Women made 82.5 percent of the median weekly earnings men did. Given those numbers, women would have made $43,836 last year. Men, $53,144. The Center for Microeconomic Data’s latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit shows total household debt went up $193 billion, or 1.4 percent, in the last quarter of 2019. It now stands at $14.15 trillion. A majority of that is housing debt, followed by auto loans, credit cards, and student loans. Countless advertising campaigns exist to persuade consumers into believing that owning more things can make us happier. Despite increases in spending, research has shown the opposite. The more materialistic people are, the less happy they are. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman argues that people care more about satisfaction with their lives, based mostly on comparisons to others, as opposed to being happy. But what about in situations, such as self-isolation and quarantine, when our comparisons to others are more... distanced? Researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan have been studying human motivation since the 1970s. Their self-determination theory states three psychological needs are what truly motivate people: competence (producing desired outcomes), autonomy (freedom and control over one's life and self), and relatedness (feeling connected to others). While researching her 2014 book “Consumption and well-being in the material world”, Dr. Miriam Tatzel found that rather than fulfilling these needs, the pursuit of money and possessions takes time away from more personally fulfilling activities and social relationships. “Thrill wears off eventually,” Tatzel said. “And then there is a big difference between what you have and what you want, then you are kind of disappointed. Getting what you want. And then you get it and then before you know it you want something else.” Tatzel’s research showed cooling a consumption-driven economy, working less and consuming less are better for humans, and better for the environment, too. It is a reality that Americans are being forced into during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they like it or not. With the entire country and every individual state under some kind of state of emergency, the number of unemployed persons rose by 1.4 million to 7.1 million in March. The U.S. Department of Labor said the sharp increases in these measures reflect the effects of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to work from home. Based on the Census Bureau’s Advancer Retail Sales Report for March 2020, spending is down 8.7 percent compared to the same month last year. Clothing stores have taken the biggest hit (down 50.5 percent), followed by furniture sales (down 26.8 percent) and food and drinking places (down 26.5 percent). The most significant increase in spending? Food and beverage stores, at 25.6 percent. At first glance, fulfilling our psychological needs could appear harder than ever. How can our need for competence be met if our previous goals are more challenging now? How can our need for autonomy be met if what we are allowed to do during a pandemic is so limited? How can our need for relatedness be met if we are forced to have less connections? VNN followed up with Tatzel to find out how her theories could be materializing during this pandemic. She said people are discovering that having less money and more time has its advantages. “If we’re among those who are sheltering in place, our wardrobe needs have really lessened,” Tatzel said. “Just very casual. You see a lot of jokes about going around in pajamas. What kind of bathrobe should I wear today? Which might be a little bit of an exaggeration. Then you look in your closet and see all these lovely shoes and other things you don’t really need. “We are cooking more and acquiring those culinary skills. We are maybe going around and doing some, fixing things ourselves rather than calling in an expert. Finding that we know how to do it. Or there are a great many YouTubes to show you how to do almost anything. So, we can feel more confident and skillful and self-reliant. And those are good feelings.” Tatzel said more time to devote to hobbies and taking a closer look at the careers we have chosen is also a definite plus. “You’re fulfilling the job that you were hired to do,” Tatzel said. “You are often told what to do. In some cases, you have more autonomy than in others. You know, nobody likes to be micromanaged. But the sense that you have are self-directed. That you’re the one that’s in the driver’s seat of your life. And sometimes when we’re just doing the old grind, we don’t have that feeling. You might feel even a little trapped.” As for more time with loved ones, Tatzel said if any good comes of this, it may be a renewed appreciation of how much relationships matter. For actual environmental impact COVID-19 has had on the planet thus far, VNN turned to NASA. The latest data average shows concentrations of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, measured by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA's Aura satellite, show a 30 percent drop in air pollution over the northeast U.S. compared to measurements over the previous four years. We’re told similar improvements in air quality have been observed in other regions of the world. In China, air pollution levels not only dropped compared to last year, they fell from January to February, as well. But living in a pandemic has obvious downsides. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced $110 million in emergency grants to help the 57.8 million Americans dealing with substance use disorders and serious mental illness during these trying times. They expect the number of people suffering will only rise. Foster said her company is now offering a special discount on emotional support and coaching services for people who are struggling with issues related to this pandemic. “People who are not so familiar with anxiety are having a really hard time because they’ve never felt anxious before with this magnitude,” Foster said. “Everyone feels anxious from time to time. You feel nervous about certain things. But if you’re feeling debilitating anxiety that’s something completely different. This is actually a trauma situation. I notice that people who come from a trauma background or who have experienced other traumas earlier in life they’re reverting back. Like old stuff coming back up.” She told VNN one positive she is seeing is people being honest about how they are feeling and sharing that and processing that and asking for help when they need it, including people who have never sought help before. “Sometimes we distract ourselves from those things during everyday life,” Foster said. “Now we don’t have our usual way of doing life anymore. So suddenly people are quieter. They have less going on. They’re at home by themselves with their thoughts. Or maybe they’re at home with their family in closer situations for longer periods of time than they’re used to. And then these things are coming up because maybe they were always there under the surface.” Foster recommends making sure you get a good night’s sleep, eat a balanced diet, and work a little exercise into your daily routine, even if it’s just a quick walk or some simple stretches, to optimize your life during the pandemic. She also recommends observing and accepting your thoughts and feelings. Instead of judging them, write them down. Foster said facing adversity presents an opportunity for growth, in ways we’ve not had the opportunity to before this pandemic. As for success, it is unlikely the word’s core definition will ever change. But some experts believe, as a result of the current hurdles facing our society, the specifics of what we are trying to attain could. What do we consider wealth to be? Whose favor do we seek? What do we strive to be eminent over? “Of course, we hate losing something, but maybe we’re gaining something also,” Tatzel said. For help with coping during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can visit


This story has no comments yet