Since the pandemic began, the think-piece economy has churned out countless articles about how our world—work, medical care, cities, transit, social interactions—will be different when it finally ends. But will we be different after the pandemic?
Judging by the fact that a New York Times essay titled, “You Can Be a Different Person After the Pandemic” quickly became a meme this past spring, it’s safe to say lots of people have changed over the last year-plus. How the pandemic changed your life, of course, depends very much on how you lived before it. A childless white-collar worker who spent a year at home in sweatpants obviously had a different pandemic experience than a doctor working ICU shifts, or a grocery clerk desperate for adequate PPE, or a single mom struggling to homeschool her kids while also supporting them.
But almost to a person, the pandemic altered some elements of our lives. Old habits, from grabbing coffee with friends to visiting the gym, were suddenly rendered unsafe. New behaviors—masking, social distancing, vigilant hand-washing—rapidly became routine. And in many cases, our personalities or values or temperaments changed too, as a byproduct of extra flexibility and free time, loneliness, fear, stress, awareness of mortality, or any number of other emotions brought on by this seismic event.
Now, as shots go into more arms every day, many of us are standing, blinking into the sunlight, and wondering what happens next. Will we still bake sourdough and tend our houseplants when there are once again other things to do? Will we return to offices, or to our old jobs at all? Will we ever feel safe shaking hands with a stranger, ever pack into a crowded bar without wondering who’s exhaling which germs?
In short: Will we ever go back to how we were?
Humans are adaptable; when our surroundings and circumstances change, so do we. It’s that skill that allowed us to develop new habits during the pandemic in the first place. Mask-wearing is one obvious example—something few people in the U.S. did regularly before March 2020 quickly became second nature for many.
Now, after performing pandemic-era routines for more than a year, they may feel permanent—but Benjamin Gardner, a behavior-change researcher at King’s College London, says people may be surprised by how quickly they fall into their old ways when their circumstances change back to normal. Habits explicitly based on “temporary changes to our situation,” such as wearing a mask in public, will likely be the first to go, Gardner says.
That’s already happening, particularly since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its mask guidance for fully vaccinated people. A May 25 Axios/Ipsos poll found that 45% of people in the U.S. said they always wear a mask outside the home, down from 58% earlier in May. That’s a clear sign that people are abandoning their pandemic-era behaviors, in line with historical examples. One 2009 research review examining public behavior during respiratory disease outbreaks concluded that people are quite willing to tweak their behavior at the most dangerous part of an outbreak, but that willingness fades over time. When the danger passes, we go back to the way we were.
Routines formed during—but not in direct response to—the pandemic may also slip away once it ends, Gardner says. How you behave is dictated largely by where you are and who you’re with. If the context that cues a behavior stays the same, you’ll likely keep doing it. But if your context changes, so might your actions. If, for example, you used to buy lunch every day from the same salad place near your office, you may find yourself doing that again when you return to in-person work—even if you’ve steadfastly prepped all your meals at home during the pandemic.
Reward is another key element of habit formation. If activities are satisfying or pleasurable, Gardner says, we are logically more likely to do them regularly. But we may find different things rewarding after the pandemic than during it. For example, if you were home 24/7, cooking three meals a day may have felt like a nice pastime. When you’re back in an office, it may begin to feel like a chore. “If something is no longer rewarding, we may stick with it for a while and then slowly taper off,” Gardner says.
For some people, however, the pandemic may have served as a reset button. A 2017 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that, after a 2014 labor strike kept many commuters from taking the London Underground, about 5% afterward stuck with whatever alternate transport they’d adopted as a replacement. This finding, the authors write, suggests that when people are forced to change course, at least a portion of them find better options and stick with them.
So may be the case post-coronavirus—lots of people have discovered they like remote work and at-home workouts, among other facets of pandemic life, and don’t intend to go back to their old systems. “We’re likely to stick to aspects of our pandemic lifestyles if they can optimize our quality of life,” says Jacqueline Gollan, a psychology professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine who researches decision making.
Indeed, while many people are itching to return to their pre-coronavirus lifestyles, others have realized there was a better way to live all along. That helps explain why houses are selling fast and furious as people relocate, and why about half of U.S. workers said in a recent Fast Company/Harris Poll survey they’re considering changing jobs. All told, about 70% of people said in a 2020 Coravin/OnePoll survey that they’d learned something about themselves during the pandemic and more than half felt embarrassed by what they valued pre-2020.
Some changes may also be outside our control, happening subconsciously in response to the conditions of the last year. Skyrocketing levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic could lead to lasting, population-level upticks in mental health conditions, as research shows happens after natural disasters and wars.
The extent to which traumatic events have a lasting impact varies widely from person to person, says Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University. Personality matters—some people simply find it easier to bounce back than others—as does someone’s lot in life. Logically, if someone faced great hardship during the pandemic, or lost out on significant future opportunities, they are more likely to bear scars than someone who was comparably well off, Pillemer says.
But even those who were mostly fine during the pandemic may see subtle, lingering changes. The Great Depression is an illustrative example. Like the pandemic, it was a highly disruptive, widespread, and long-lasting event that fundamentally changed the way people lived. And just as many people who lived through the Great Depression maintained values like frugality, the pandemic may leave behind its own fingerprints—perhaps germaphobia, wariness of proximity to strangers or increased comfort with solitude.
“There might be an epidemic of mistrust” after the pandemic, suggests Pillemer. Flawed pandemic responses caused many Americans to lose faith in their elected officials, and trust in the media is at its lowest point in recent history. Arguably more affecting, strangers have been equated with danger during the pandemic. Solitude, in these times, is safe; crowds and social interaction are risky. Particularly for young children learning about the world, Pillemer says, it may take concerted effort to undo that conditioning.
But Pillemer says he is optimistic it can be done. From wars to recessions to terrorist attacks, nearly every generation has faced traumatic events, Pillemer notes. After each, there are some people who face long-term psychological effects, and the mental health system must be set up to recognize and care for them. But the majority of people, Pillemer says, do return to a steady state once the immediate crisis subsides. In many cases, they even grow from it. “People who go through adversity, especially in later life, develop wisdom, ability to regulate their emotions, resilience,” he says. “It is remarkable how resilient people are.”
In fact, research suggests older people weathered the pandemic’s psychological challenges better than younger generations. During the pandemic, adults 65 and older reported lower rates of anxiety, depression, substance use and suicidal ideation than any other age group, according to CDC data. That’s somewhat counterintuitive, given high rates of loneliness and isolation among the U.S. elderly, but that fortitude may come from dealing with difficult situations before. They had a kind of “inoculation against stress,” Pillemer says.
No one would choose to live through a pandemic, and the world has lost a staggering number of lives and livelihoods over its course. Those losses should never be discounted. But for those fortunate enough to come out on the other side, the pandemic may instill this kind of strength, Pillemer says.
So will we be different when we’re no longer living with COVID-19? Yes and no. Most of us will, in all likelihood, return largely to our pre-pandemic norms. We will socialize and commute and eat in restaurants, even if those things feel inconceivable now. Some people will make lasting changes to their lives, both mundane and monumental. And, hopefully, many of us will hold onto lessons learned during this time—such that next time we are faced with difficulty, we may have a better understanding of how we can overcome it.
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