This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
No season has the glorified reputation of summer. Although many people love the optimism of spring or the romance of autumn, American culture has a special fondness for warm weather, long days, time away from school or work, and a mindset that prioritizes fun over productivity.
But that vibe, in recent years, has been under threat. COVID-19 still abounds, disrupting vacations, child care, and anxiety-free nights out. Last year, hot-vax-summer fantasies crashed into the reality of fresh variants, a surge of infections, international barriers to entry, and arguments with family about getting vaccinated before sharing an Airbnb. Not surprisingly, some people approached summer 2022 with a learned trepidation, understanding that even the most careful plans can come undone with a positive test result.
Meanwhile, in Australia, where I live, face masks and air purifiers had become popular accessories even before the pandemic thanks to the increased frequency and violence of fires—a summer disaster that now shows up across continents and is projected to continue. Unstable weather is a constant: Europe, the United States, and China all faced record summer heat waves this year, while flooding in Pakistan has killed almost 1,600 people.
Seasonal sentimentality, in short, is waning. “Summer now contains hope and dread,” Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Hunter College, told me. The essential instability of our times can’t be easily wished away. But there is good news: That treasured carefree summer feeling is, in part, a construct. And that means we can remake it, regardless of the time of year.
As I explore in my book The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness, we are often taught that cultural meanings are as fixed and permanent as gravity. But the reality is that some of our deepest beliefs are learned. Common notions of “true love” have been forged through sonnets and rom-coms; the idea that our careers are the true path to self-actualization stems, in part, from the self-serving rhetoric of CEOs who have their own motives at heart. And we glorify summer because we’re trained to.
From childhood, long school vacations have essentially conditioned Americans into associating the period with freedom, relief, and a reprieve from their usual responsibilities. Though those extended breaks evaporate in adulthood, we’re still told what summer should look and feel like: Berthe Morisot’s Belle Époque beauties showing off their best dresses and hats in the painting Summer’s Day, a 22-year-old rocking the breezy linens and sensible sandals of TikTok’s coastal-grandma aesthetic. Films such as Dirty Dancing and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants assure us that some combination of sun, water, and pale-pink wine can help us emerge as our best selves. The duel for “song of the summer” is tracked and reported, lest we unknowingly commit our perfectly curated memories to the wrong soundtrack.
But we can detangle at least some of our summer values from specific dates, redefining them for ourselves. Humans will always seek leisure, beauty, and relief, even in a different way, at a different time of year. In 2022, that pursuit may be less bound to one season. We should feel liberated to indulge in a stack of books with all the languor of a beach day, savor the frosted lawn as a backdrop to a glass of rosé, or permit ourselves to take a two-week vacation in November.
Here in Melbourne, COVID case numbers have been slipping to their lowest point since January. Recently, a familiar sense of excitement and optimism washed over me. Feeling long-rooted anxieties over infections, lockdowns, and travel disruptions loosening, I messaged my partner an article predicting the end of our current wave and suggested we take a trip soon. For the first time in months, I felt light, hopeful, excited: a summer rush out of season in the Southern Hemisphere.
Understandably, some people might be rusty at feeling carefree at all. Andrei Novac, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine who studies the impact of traumatic stress, told me that the pandemic experience of living with a potentially deadly virus cannot be easily shrugged off. “Psychological inhibition from fear makes it very hard to return to previous social and intimate habits,” he said. “Some [people] need to relearn to overcome their fear and be able to enjoy anything and play. For them, there is no fantasy of a real summer.” For people disappointed that the summer that just passed didn't live up to those before, Dennis-Tiwary recommends reflecting on what they loved about bygone summers—spending more time than usual with loved ones, for example—and how it can still be preserved.
I believe that the goal right now is to be emotionally nimble, to pivot to living with optimism and freedom whenever it’s possible—because who knows if freak weather or another highly transmissible variant will send us back indoors again. Perhaps we have only two real seasons now—hibernation and thriving—and we need to be ready to toggle between them. If we can master that, then the values we associate with summer are actually available at a moment’s notice.
From the Neolithic observation of solstices to the pre-industrial planning of lives around the harvest, humans have long fixated on seasons. In the past, this may have been a practical matter of crop cultivation—survival, essentially. Today, the patterns of our years are still guided by this principle. Yes, it’s dystopian to reconsider our downtime among a pandemic and natural disasters, but it also hints at something liberating: In a time of ambition-skepticism and desire to find the “good-enough,” we should be able to choose when to slow down and perhaps drink a Dirty Shirley. The times demand that we find sentimentality in whatever moments we can.