(VOX) Cities are reopening. Lockdowns are lifting. And some people are starting to feel they can glimpse a return, however slow and partial, to “normal.”
But the pandemic has changed us. Although being on lockdown has been pretty grueling on balance, the surprise is that many of us have realized there are some things about quarantine life that are worth preserving. We’re questioning the very fundamentals of the “normal” we’d all come to unthinkingly accept — and realizing we don’t want to go back, not to that.
For some, going back isn’t even an option. Those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, for example, have suffered a tragic and irrevocable loss. Millions who’ve lost their jobs don’t have any work to go back to, and many essential workers have been working through the pandemic without much choice. Older and immunocompromised people are still advised to stay home.
At the same time, living in quarantine for months has offered some — mostly the privileged among us — a rare opportunity to reflect on our lives and, potentially, to reset them.
Workers whose jobs defined their lives are now asking what all that productivity was for, and whether we really want to measure our self-worth by the yardstick of hypercompetitive capitalism. Many are finding that the things that made them look “successful” actually also made them feel miserable, or precarious, or physically unwell.
Quarantine has allowed them to experiment with new habits and new lifestyles. And they want to keep some of these things going, even in a post-lockdown world.
I asked Vox readers to tell me which specific changes they want to maintain as they emerge from quarantine and stumble their way to a new normal. More than 100 people responded across the globe, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates and from Portugal to Pakistan. Some broad trends leaped out in the responses. Below are the eight most common.
1) Reducing consumerism
This was by far the most popular response. Many told me they want to spend less money shopping for new material goods like gadgets and clothes. A long period of being shut in and not spending as much has led to the realization that so much of our consumer behavior is about instant gratification, not lasting happiness.
Several people also noted that they plan to eat out less often at restaurants. Eating in during the lockdown has enabled them to save money, and some have discovered a taste for home-cooked meals.
A few said they’ll look to “mend and make do” more often. In situations where that’s not possible and they’ll have to buy something new, respondents told me they want to be more mindful of where they spend their money.
“I think I will be more inclined to direct my consumption toward small local businesses,” said Nora Zeid, a 23-year-old illustrator and designer in the United Arab Emirates. “It breaks my heart how much they have suffered lately and how, unlike big corporations, they are less likely to survive.”
2) Slowing down and putting less pressure on ourselves
Being stuck in our houses has made many of us realize that we’ve spent years rushing through life, pressuring ourselves to get the “right” jobs and attend the “right” events, even if all that status-chasing was making us miserable.
“Quarantine has forced me to slow down in ways I haven’t since I was a kid. From high school and college, through my 20s and a master’s program, I have been on the go constantly for half my life. I always said I was one who liked to be busy, but the last two months of forced slowdown has really called on me to think about what I want my life to look like moving forward,” said one Vox reader in the US who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’m trying to figure out what it would look like to intentionally build in space in my life to breathe, reflect, and focus on the most important aspects of life — the people around you who make it all worth it.”
Some younger respondents told me they want to put less career pressure on themselves because they now realize work is not what matters most in life. A couple of older adults told me they’d been considering retiring before Covid-19 came around; the pandemic pushed them to finally do it. And even for some who were already retired, the slower pace of life created by the lockdown has come as a relief.
Post-pandemic, the goal will be to “not fill every waking moment with a commitment of some kind,” said Patricia Murray, who lives in Savannah, Georgia. “Even retired persons, like myself, need leisure time. I seem to work as much as a volunteer as I did in paid jobs; slowing down is the biggest change I’ve made and it feels good.”
Again, it’s worth noting that the ability to slow down entails a great deal of privilege. Millions who’ve been pushed out of the workforce wish they could be working more, not less. And some older and immunocompromised people have had to go back to work, even if they don’t feel safe doing so yet, because they need the income and the employer-provided health insurance.
3) Prioritizing family and friends
When the chips are down, you see who really shows up for you. Several people told me they’ve come to appreciate the family members and friends who’ve been there for them during this tough time, and that long after the coronavirus dies down, it’s this group that they want to re-up their investment in.
“Quarantine has reinforced the necessity of telling people how you feel about them,” said Andrew Goldberg, a recent graduate from Syracuse University. “With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place, it is easier than ever to feel isolated from the world. But as the days stretch into weeks, I’ve decided that the only way I’ll be able to keep my spirits up is by making sure the people I care about know exactly how I feel about them.”
Others emphasized that the bizarre, unprecedented nature of this global pandemic has allowed them to reach out to people they haven’t spoken to in ages. Suddenly they’ve found themselves on Zoom with estranged family members or old college roommates halfway around the world.
“I’ve talked with my older nephews more in the last few weeks than I’ve talked with them in years,” said Nancy Skinner Ringier, a retired speech-language pathologist, adding that they now share recipes and jokes.
4) Ethical action and activism in our highly interconnected world
This was perhaps the most encouraging set of responses: People told me that the global health crisis has shown them how interconnected we all are, and that they want to keep doing more for others after the pandemic ends. They’re donating more to charitable causes, trying harder to reduce their carbon footprint, and engaging in more political activism.
“I’d like to keep my home a headquarters for the three different county mutual aid coalitions I’m affiliated with,” said Erin Brown of Tazewell County, Illinois. “I currently have donations stored here that delivery volunteers and folks in need come to collect. My landline, which is part of my internet package, was never used before but is now a mutual aid contact number. I’m in a good location, near all three of those counties, and I suspect mutual aid will be vital for some time to come.”
The protests against police brutality have also galvanized millions to fight for racial justice.
“For the longest time, I did not keep up with current news. It’s not hard to see why — our world is a shitshow, and my mental health is bad enough as is,” said Adrian DeRoy, a 27-year-old reader in the US. “But the black community rising up yet again to face their challenges made me look, and seeing the world slowly but surely start to fall in step with the protests here, the voices crying out as one … it gives me some small semblance of hope. Hope that maybe we will get through all this, and come out better than we were before.”
5) Exercising daily
This was another very common response. Many people who weren’t previously into fitness have been getting into running, yoga, and other activities as a way to cope with lockdown. And they’ve been astounded at how much daily exercise can improve life.
“Desperate for any excuse to leave the house, I’ve finally been able to keep up a daily exercise routine. It’s incredible how much difference even a short jog every morning makes!” Katie Reynolds, a Vox reader in the US, told me. “My sleep is better, my brain feels clearer, my mood is improved, and it feels easier to keep up other good habits. Definitely will be keeping this habit, at least until there’s ice on the ground again.”
6) Baking, vegetarian cooking, and growing herbs
Yes, the sourdough obsession is real. Several people wrote to me in glowing terms about their starters.
“I believe I’ll be keeping my sourdough starter. It’s like another family pet at this point,” said Matthew Schreiber, who lives in New Orleans.
In addition to baking bread, people also mentioned that they plan to keep fermenting things like sauerkraut and generally cooking more of their own meals so they can eat less processed food.
Specifically, people want to cook more vegetarian meals and lean away from meat-eating. The impulse seems to be coming not only from the fact that there are meat shortages in some US grocery stores, but also from the knowledge that a live-animal market in China may have given rise to the coronavirus and that the giant factory farms that supply 99 percent of America’s meat are a pandemic risk, too.
Many also told me they’re enjoying growing herbs like mint and cilantro on their patios, or growing vegetables like celery and scallions in little glasses on their windowsills.
It’s not really surprising that the coronavirus crisis has prompted this reaction. It’s reminiscent of World War I and II, when Americans grew their own fruits and vegetables in “victory gardens.” The back-to-nature impulse offers psychological comfort at a time of great uncertainty, as well as a practical safeguard against supply-chain problems: If the stores run out of food, at least we’ll have our vegetables!
7) Spending more time in nature
Getting outdoors has been, for many of us, a crucial way to maintain our sanity during lockdown. In particular, parents have wanted to give their cooped-up kids a chance to run around and release some energy (which, frankly, is probably as crucial for the parents’ mental health as for the children’s).
“I have developed a morning routine that involves ‘quiet listening’ on the porch with the kids. It’s a great way to start out calm with my wild little ones,” said Sharon Lapin, a painter in Atlanta.
Others are simply enjoying the chance to reconnect to the natural world. Its rhythms and resilience can help to calm our anxious minds.
“I want to stay in this less distracted zone and enjoy the time I have with my husband by taking advantage of the natural world (hiking, kayaking) and taking trips in our camper,” said Camille Costa Nerney of upstate New York.
8) Working from home, if possible
Lockdowns across the globe led to millions of people suddenly working from home — and guess what? It turns out we can do many jobs just as well in the comfort of our own homes (and sweatpants) as in our offices.
Of course, for many people, this is not an option. It’s a privilege to be able to work from home. That said, the myth that remote work isn’t as practical as a 9-to-5 office job has been proven to be just that: a myth. Some are finding that working from home actually offers unique benefits.
“I’m a counseling psychologist, and I have been doing client work remotely. I think I will keep doing it remotely! It’s quite convenient,” said Raphael Doval-Santos. “My practice also gets to be more global, and my new clients are not just within my city anymore.”
Several respondents said they love no longer having to commute to work. It means no pollution, more sleep, and less stress.
“I actually like this now; it’s better this way,” said Hermee Sorneo, a 36-year-old customer service team leader for a data management company in the Philippines. “There’s so much benefit in working from home, and I think the world should do this voluntarily, with or without pandemic, at least once every 10 years for at least three months.”
The “with or without pandemic” point brings up a key question. Lots of us say we want to maintain our new habits in a post-pandemic world, but will we, really?
As anyone who’s ever tried a New Year’s resolution knows, maintaining new habits is hard. But psychologists who specialize in behavior change say there are things you can do now to make it more likely that you’ll succeed down the line. For instance, you can prime your environment, whether by setting up an automatically recurring monthly donation or putting running shoes by your bed to nudge you to go for that morning run. It’s also good to reward yourself each time you engage in the target behavior — but make it an intrinsic reward, not an extrinsic one. So instead of reaching for a smoothie after every run, pause to savor the extra energy and strength you feel.
Finally, it’s important to note that if you don’t emerge from this pandemic with any great new habits, that is absolutely all right. Sometimes surviving is an accomplishment in itself.
“With my quarantine, good habits came of it. But I want others to know it’s okay if good, bad, or nothing came out of this quarantine,” said Farishta Saifi, a 23-year-old home health aide. “The world is a scary place right now, and just you living another day is excellent enough.”
This article was originally published in Vox.