From birth to our last breath, life is a matter of meeting our needs and wants. Survival requires food, shelter, clothing, tools, and sustenance skills. Common sense, right?

Once our basic needs are met (sometimes even before), we seek pleasure, engagement, and meaning. It’s what we humans do—always have and always will.

The urge to experience the various forms of happiness seems to operate side-by-side with the drive to survive. Even when our ancestors were fumbling fire-starters and desperate foragers, they liked a good time. Making steam with a sexual partner, you and your crew getting lost in the flow of luring a wooly mammoth to the edge of the cliff, watching the little ones mimic Uncle Ugg. 

Life is hard. For some, it feels impossibly so. But we forge on. Our health status includes mental/emotional/behavioral dimensions, and some of us are hurting in those ways.

Because of its disease model, psychology used to focus almost entirely on helping miserable individuals feel better. Raising their well-being level from say, Minus 10 to Zero. UPenn’s Martin S. Seligman believes the field has made significant progress in that mission but doesn’t think that’s enough.

According to Seligman and others who launched the subfield of “positive psychology,” psychology should give equal attention to the needs of people who are not suffering mental disorders—to help individuals exceed that Zero level.

The work of positive psychologists is scientific in every aspect. Science tries to explain past events and to predict future outcomes. At the end of his 2004 Ted Talk, Dr. Seligman posited that in ten or so years we might find that psychology will be “good enough.”

He expressed that hope over sixteen years ago.

Does anybody think that’s happened? 

Where does this leave people doing their best to get by and perhaps hoping to do a little better?

Seligman and others who study the positive side of psychology tell us that we tend to underestimate the social nature of life. He made that clear in his Ted Talk. So much of normal life has been taken away from us this last year, adding twists and turns to the already tricky road to well-being.

Think love, family, kinship, friendship, community, the ordinary social interactions of daily life. Ordering coffee at Dunkin Donuts, getting an appointment for the vaccine. Even life in the midst of plague requires interaction with others. 

In that 22-minute talk, Seligman zoomed in on social connection.

Once our basic needs are met (sometimes even before), we seek pleasure, flow, and meaning. At least, those are our options as humans, always have been, always will be. And even in the time of COVID, other people are essential.

We’ve talked here about the damaging effects of distant learning on children, but it’s not all bad news. We need connection—mask-to-mask, as need be—with each other. Liaison. Last week’s post celebrated formerly incarcerated Rob Porter, who serves as Police Liaison in his community.  

The struggling characters in Susan Conley’s Landslide, reviewed here two weeks ago, and recently by Hillary Kelly in The New York Times, have their best chance for survival and happiness when they approach their struggle as a family unit—together.

And I owe my deep friend and teaching brother Vince Castronuovo, who shared the Ted Talk link with me. He and I taught our mostly first-generation college students about positive psychology, and I wrote about it in Open Admissions. Our community college honors students were survivors. Many worked in Philadelphia’s restaurants. One morning, a usually quiet student put up his hand during discussion about an article by Martin Seligman. “I served his table Saturday night,” he said. Here’s to such moments in the future.  

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.