The coronavirus has shown us how little we actually control. It has affected people across the globe—young and old, healthy and ill. You could be doing everything right and still lose your job, or worse, your life. It’s not surprising, then, that activities we can control have surged. Perhaps it’s an instinctual response, an innate balancing act: when the world around us feels huge, complex, and unwieldy, we turn to the small, simple, and manageable.
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 running low or sold out. Baking powder has seen a 450 percent increase in demand compared to this time last year.
Yes, many people simply have more time than ever for these activities. But I suspect another reason people are flocking to them is because they satisfy our basic needs for autonomy and mastery.
Whether in baking, gardening, exercising, or creating arts and crafts, 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 leaves a wonderful feeling in its wake.
In 2001, philosopher Matthew Crawford quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. “The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,” Crawford writes in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. “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-19, the bread has risen, the tomato has grown, the necklace has been made, the biceps have become bigger and stronger.
In the early 1970s, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan introduced self-determination theory. One of the most cited psychological theories of the past five decades, self-determination theory shows that humans are motivated, happy, and fulfilled when three basic needs are met:
Autonomy: Having some control over your environment and, more broadly, the flow of your life.
Mastery: Making tangible progress in your pursuits and being able to trace the outcome of your work back to your efforts.
Belonging: Feeling connected to a lineage or part of a group.
Thanks to COVID-19, people are feeling the fragility and peril of basic human existence more acutely than usual. Thus, many are doubling down on meeting their basic needs. And with belonging not readily available (at least not in the traditional sense; Zoom sessions only get you so far), autonomy and mastery are what we have left.
Perhaps one lesson of the times is that we’d be wise to spend our energy on activities that support autonomy and mastery both now and long after the coronavirus has passed. Once the pandemic ends, we can also add in belonging. We can bake, garden, create, and exercise with other people, in real life. Belonging will only make these pursuits that much more enjoyable and nourishing.
It’s not that these activities distract us from the ultimate uncertainty we live under. Distraction is 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 amid 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 have become bigger.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.