Maybe People Need More to Lose
America's stubborn hostility to pleasure is fueling our breakdown
1I’ll start by saying I know I am phenomenally, ridiculously lucky: I’m writing this newsletter from Greece, looking out at a blue sea, squinting into my laptop to block out a bright afternoon sun. For hours at a time, and sometimes for whole days as I go on long hikes to rocky beaches and leave my mask at home, I’ve forgotten that Covid continues to rage across the United States. It’s been a much-needed and much-appreciated escape, one that is punctured every time I load my New York Times app or scroll through Twitter. I try to bat away the knowledge that I’m returning home to what is shaping up to be a long, lonely winter.
But as I get to enjoy this terrifically lucky and beautiful thing, I’m also thinking about how this is one of the reasons I was so eager to get vaccinated: To return to the profound pleasures of travel, of dining out, of gathering with groups of friends, of seeing my family, of meeting friends’ new babies and hosting dinner parties and doing something new and exciting after a year of such isolated repetition.
To get some pleasure back — that’s why I got vaccinated. But in America, pleasure is suspect, and access to it inequitably distributed. That, I suspect, is part of what is driving vaccine hesitancy and refusals among so many Americans: The sense that there’s not much to be gained from getting vaccinated, at least not in terms of living one’s day-to-day life. I wonder if our country made life a little sweeter for more people — or at least a little less difficult and desperate — if we’d see very different outcomes here.
I can already hear the objection: What do you mean there’s not much to be gained from getting vaccinated? Not dying is the thing that’s to be gained! And yes, obviously. But human beings are remarkably bad at assessing our own risk of death; we are both afraid of dying and startlingly resistant to a whole slew of basic ways to stave it off. Most of us don’t wear sunscreen every day. A lot of us smoke, eat cured meats, buy a fast food dinner, don’t wear seatbelts in taxi cabs, drive over the speed limit on the highway. Of course that’s not the same as refusing vaccination against a deadly virus. But for most people, the threat of death is one weighed on a more complicated scale, and typically, we need other reasons to comply with pretty simple life-preserving directives (most women I know sunscreen up not because they’re afraid of skin cancer, but because they’re afraid of aging; lots of people adhere to the speed limit because they’re more afraid of a ticket than a deadly car accident). I’m a healthy person in my 30s. I didn’t get the vaccine because I was afraid of dying of Covid; I got it because I didn’t want to give someone else Covid, and if I’m being totally honest, I mostly got it because I wanted my life back.
And the thing is, there was a really good life to get back to; it was a life that had been radically curtailed because of Covid. That isn’t true for a lot of Americans. Lots of people in conservative states and more rural areas didn’t change their lives much at all because of the pandemic — they still sent their kids to school; they shopped maskless at the grocery store; they got together for Christmas and Thanksgiving. So the vaccine didn’t offer much of a respite for stress and loneliness, because life in 2020 didn’t get all that much more stressful or lonely.
For many others, life was already stressful and lonely. The story of working in America is, for many, a story of getting crushed by isolation, over-work, and under-pay. Social ties have frayed. The cult of individualism has hollowed out communities. Our online-ness was a savior during Covid, but also contributed to the epidemic of loneliness that predated it. The calculus that I made — I want the vaccine so I can return to the pleasures of my pre-Covid life — isn’t one that a lot of Americans have the ability to make, because life pre-Covid didn’t involve a whole lot of pleasure.
That isn’t to say that the unvaccinated are all living sad and pleasureless lives — of course not. But it is the case that the US does not let pleasure come easily. I’m often struck, when I leave the US, by how different dining out is in many other countries, where big-city restaurants are filled with people of all ages, and there are restaurants (not fast food) that are sit-down and affordable. In a lot of my favorite places in the world, eating isn’t a task but a pleasure shared with loved ones. Scarfing down a Wendy’s chicken sandwich in your car, ok, maybe in extenuating circumstances, but that’s not an acceptable daily lunch. In America, it is — not because we’re uncivilized heathens, but because we are double-crunched on time and money, and stunted by a culture that sees pleasure-seeking as slothful and shameful. Here, things like paid vacation days are a luxury. Big family dinners out at a sit-down restaurant are for special occasions. Weeks at a time off in July and August, and again in December, so people can get away, recharge, and relax? For all but the most privileged, that’s unimaginable.
The young-ish, college-educated, and upper-middle-class residents of diverse and vibrant cities like New York, New Orleans, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco, and of interesting and vibrant smaller ones (Ann Arbor, Asheville, Santa Fe, Savannah, Missoula, etc etc), live a little differently, and have lots of incentives for vaccination. These are the places where college-educated Millennials and Gen Zers are still living out their days of childlessness, and they are the metropolitan centers near to which college-educated Gen Xers and older Millennials are raising their families. Even many of us with college degrees, living in or around vibrant cities, are not exactly thriving — we’re over-worked, we feel broke all of the time, we wonder whether we can ever afford to have kids or buy a house. But the typical Millennial-shaming — you could afford a down payment if you didn’t spend all your money on lattes and avocado toast — points to something real: We absolutely do spend more money than our parents did at our age on pleasures small and large, from traveling to eating meals out to hosting gathering with friends. I’d argue that we spend that money in part because we have different values and in part because we don’t believe we can ever afford the bigger things so we might as well enjoy the smaller ones, but either way: Those of us who are lucky to live in desirable urban areas, who have professional-class jobs that involve working in front of a computer, may feel alienated in all kinds of ways, but also have a slew of privileges that enable a life that is, if not pleasure-filled, at least speckled with it: Paid vacation days, a little disposable income, reliable transportation to get to a friend’s house, proximity to huge numbers of same-age and like-minded people, proximity to a plethora of cultural events and institutions, and working hours that are unbearably long but at least somewhat consistent from day to day, allowing us to plan ahead.
When you look at who is vaccinated and who isn’t, the clearest delineation is age: Old people, who are most at risk for dying of Covid, vaxxed up in huge numbers. But another is politics: Trump supporters are resisting vaccination, while Biden supporters are embracing it. Those political lines, though, also reflect back some aspects of class and place, and how someone votes does in fact tell you something about their values, personality, and priorities — are they open-minded and curious about people who are different than them? Are they more comfortable with open doors or insistent on closed ones? Do they value diversity and heterogeneity and see themselves more as members of a global community than a singular nation, or do they prioritize hierarchy, sameness, and nationalism, and see themselves as Americans and therefore superior?
Some of this has to do with education and the income it produces. For all the hand-wringing about colleges and universities being liberal-dominated places, it’s also the truth that there’s a pretty good reason for that: Today’s Republican party has largely rejected science and empiricism; they reject the curiosity and desire for knowledge that characterizes the educational experience. And education is a liberalizing force — why do you think religious fundamentalists the world over reject it, especially for girls?
But there are also cultural differences that partly explain the red-blue gap in pursuing pleasure and novelty. This piece in the Atlantic looks at differences in who holds passports in the United States, and it’s pretty telling. The most obvious driver of having a passport, and ostensibly of traveling internationally, is money, and duh. But when researchers control for income — removing the question of whether people can afford to travel internationally — differences still emerge. Among them: Residents of more diverse states are more likely to have passports than residents of more homogenous ones. Residents of states with knowledge-based and creative class economies are more likely to have passports than residents of states with high proportions of working-class jobs like manufacturing. Residents of states with more-educated populaces are more likely to have passports than residents of states with less-educated ones. And blue state residents are more likely to have passports than red state residents. This is all true even when controlling for income.
Importantly: The states with high levels of passport ownership are also tend to be the states where people are the happiest.
I wrote a whole book about feminism, happiness, and pleasure, and one of the lessons of it is that happiness — a happy life — isn’t just about having positive experiences all the time. It’s about pursuing meaning. It’s about the satisfaction that comes from working through something difficult, or dedicating yourself to what seems like an impossible aim. It’s about human connection and how our relationships with others shape our sense of self and belonging, and our sense of purpose. It’s about openness and curiosity. It’s also about pleasure: Not feeling happy every minute of every day, and not necessarily living hedonistically (although perhaps more of us should), but about prioritizing and experiencing basic human pleasures, from the soft touch of a beloved person to the sound of beautiful music to the taste of something that triggers a warm memory. And it’s about novelty: The discomfort and fascination that comes with experiencing something new.
The luckiest among us — even those of us with student loan debt and too-high rents and no hope for a mortgage any time soon — have a lot going for us in the pleasure and happiness department, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. We tend to have jobs that require us to puzzle through things, solve problems, and achieve something for which we receive positive feedback. We are more likely to get married and to have stable relationships. We have larger communities with more connection to others, and in these larger communities we are more likely to come into contact with people who are different from us. We are less likely to experience violence inside of our homes and outside of them. We are more likely to travel and to try new things. And on a very practical level, we have the time and money to take advantage of the pleasures on offer to us.
In the US, this is all a privilege. And it’s what much of self-defined Real America rejects, even when it’s on offer. It’s a myth that Trump voters were all struggling working-class whites. Certainly lots of Trump voters were struggling working-class whites, but when you look at exit poll data, something interesting emerges: While Trump handily won the votes of whites without a college degree (67% of them voted for him) and narrowly won the votes of Americans without a college degree more generally (50% to Biden’s 48%), he also won the votes of the richest quarter of American voters — those with a household income above $100,000. Biden, on the other hand, handily won those with graduate degrees and more narrowly won those with college degrees, but lost these wealthier voters; he beat Trump out, though, with voters making less than $100,000, and with voters whose family income is less than $50,000.
In other words, the “working class for Trump” narrative doesn’t hold. The people actually making working-class wages voted for Biden. Instead, it seems that whites without college degrees who still manage to make a decent amount of money are Trump’s base. That certainly explains the yacht parties.
And it helps to explain the vaccine gap.
I wonder how vaccination rates would be different if people had more to lose. That is: If as a country, we made sure that everyone had the basic foundation from which to build a good life — if that were the case, what would people choose and how would they act? Part of this is policy and part of it is culture, and of course culture influences policy — one of the reasons we don’t offer Americans a robust life foundation is that conservatives reject that kind of broad government support and regulation. But I also imagine that, if we raised the floor a little higher for everyone, we’d be a less conservative place.
Specifically: A higher minimum wage, one that actually covers the cost of living. Much more affordable and government-subsidized housing. Mandatory paid vacation days. Universal healthcare that doesn’t bankrupt people who get sick. Predictable, reasonable work hours and stable schedules. Aid to small businesses and family farms that serve and feed people nearby, instead of aid to Big Ag and tax breaks to the Wal-Marts and Dollar Generals that eat up and hollow out communities, underpaying workers while enriching far-away owners in the process.
This is basic Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stuff: People need to feel secure and have their basic needs met before they can pursue matters of purpose, intellectual engagement, and self-actualization. Lots of Americans still don’t have the fundamentals: Shelter, sufficient rest, consistent access to nutritious food, basic health. And many more don’t meet the criteria of the second-most-basic level: Physical safety, sufficient income, emotional and material stability.
Others — I suspect many in Trump’s America — have those basics, but aren’t getting their needs for love and belonging met, let alone their needs for esteem and sense of self-confidence. That’s part of what fuels the oft-discussed deaths of despair, and the fact that college-educated Americans are getting healthier and living longer, while whites without a college degree are dying earlier, seeing their families break apart, and facing a future with dwindling prospects. This is, again, a problem of policy and culture intertwining: Many of the same people who are suffering from bad policy choices were the ones who voted in the bad policy-makers, and continue to vote for conservatives who make their lives worse. It may be self-inflicted harm, but it’s harm nonetheless, and it extends to people who have voted differently and asked for something better.
The American refusal to meet the basic needs of our citizens makes for far less happy lives. It curtails a broad ability to pursue pleasure and meaning, and helps to create a culture in which those pursuits are looked as indulgences rather than birthrights — even by people on the left, who can be among the quickest to reject pleasure as bourgeois and “privileged” and therefore bad and worth shaming, rather than an ideal we should be expanding out. Couple our broad policy failures with the American conservative culture of incuriosity, fear of change, hostility to outsiders, and Real America chauvinism, and no wonder the pleasure gap also correlates with the vaccine gap: Those who remain unvaccinated tend to either lack basic resources like health insurance and time off of work, or are part of a cultural group that has historically shown less interest in the pursuit of knowledge, novelty, and experience, even when they have the resources and ability for such pursuits.
America’s pleasure problem isn’t one that can be solved overnight, and it’s not what is going to fix our too-low vaccination rates this late in the game. But as we look at all of the cleavages that divide us and animate our politics, and as we imagine what a better country might be, pleasure should be top of mind. What kind of society do we want to live in? What is the point of government, of community, of living lives that are as short as the burst of a shooting star? Is it to slog through, reproduce, and die? Or can we hope for something more?
If we want people to save their own lives, then we need to make those lives good ones.
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