2 Competing Impulses Will Drive Post-pandemic Social Life

A photo of a man sitting alone in a park superimposed on a photo of people socializing together outdoors
Andrew Testa / The New York Times / Redux; Mark Peterson / Redux / The Atlantic

A post-pandemic discussion question: You get home from work on a Friday night and change into sweatpants. It’s been an exhausting week. A text message comes in. Your good friend wants to know if you’d like to meet up last minute for a drink, which is something that’s safe to do again. You’d love to catch up, but you’re pretty tired. Do you go?

This choose-your-own-adventure—or choose-your-own-lack-of-adventure—scenario is one that more Americans will start facing again soon, and their answer will indicate which of two competing post-pandemic impulses they feel more strongly.

On the one hand, people will be freshly aware that they shouldn’t take the ability to attend social gatherings for granted. On the other, they also will have experienced, albeit involuntarily, the occasional pleasures of having fewer social commitments. Introverts and extroverts alike may feel torn between taking advantage of their regained freedom and preserving some of the quiet of pandemic life, but many people will end up in one of two distinct camps.

The first is one we can call Team Yes. “Post-pandemic, I don’t intend to wait if I want to try a restaurant or go to an event,” Ilona Westfall, a 38-year-old freelance writer in Lakewood, Ohio, told me. “I plan on saying yes more. Yes to parties, yes to concerts, yes to beach hangouts with my friends.”

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After more than a year of not having much to say yes to, it would be hard not to feel that sort of urgency. But nationwide, this reaction will likely be tempered by a newfound taste for a lower-key life. Per a report released by the Harris Poll in March, three-quarters of survey respondents said they learned during the pandemic that they “preferred smaller social gatherings at home or at [a] friend’s place over going out to bars or restaurants.” A similar proportion predicted that in the post-pandemic world, they would miss “the comfort of [their] home while socializing.”

Team No is not great branding for the group of people who plan to go out less often after the pandemic than they did before it. Perhaps Team Home or Team Couch would be better. Sydney Julien identifies with both types of post-pandemic socializers, but nicely articulated the appeal of this more relaxed philosophy. “I used to let people talk me into things I didn’t really have the time or energy for, simply because I liked [those people] and thought giving in would make them happy,” Julien, a 22-year-old who works at a wine store in Albany, New York, told me. “COVID has allowed me to set boundaries that better honor my own needs and energy levels, which has been refreshing.”

The urges to go out more and to stay home more are of course in conflict, but Team Yes and Team Couch might be more alike than they appear: Both philosophies seem to stem from a desire to be more deliberate about spending time on the things that matter most to you.

This is a natural response to living through a crisis that has provided constant reminders that your life will one day end, according to Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at Skidmore College and a co-author of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Sometimes, he told me, “existential uncertainty gives us the opportunity, as well as the psychological impetus, to step back” and revisit our priorities. This could mean resolving to spend more time alone, or it could mean resolving to spend more time with family and friends.

Solomon also thinks that the stresses of the past year could lead some people to say yes or no more in ways that aren’t healthy, such as numbing themselves by partying nonstop or avoiding interactions because of ongoing social anxiety. On the surface, those may seem like classic Team Yes or Team Couch behaviors, but they won’t be the result of constructive decisions people made to try to be happier.

Whether approached in a thoughtful way or not, the transition back to normalcy will be a potent moment to establish new social rhythms. Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor and the host of the podcast The Happiness Lab, likened it to other “chapter breaks” in life, such as turning 40 or moving to a new city, which seem to be conducive to behavioral change. “You have this moment where your brain is more motivated to start new habits,” Santos told me. “Don’t waste that. Those are rare.”

As some people think ahead to their next chapter, the relative stillness they’ve experienced in the past year has highlighted how fast-paced their life was before 2020. “The pandemic provided a controlled environment where I could test or track different things and see how they affect me,” Heather Jovanovic, a 26-year-old grad student in Winnipeg, Canada, told me. She has been able to see clearly how her concentration wanes and her mood worsens if she doesn’t eat breakfast or get enough sleep—“things that I used to sacrifice on a near-daily basis in favor of evenings out.” In the future, she thinks she’ll be more comfortable skipping social engagements if they seem like they’ll later make her feel lousy.

The pared-down social calendars of the pandemic have been a sort of education. Santos said that when people consider what they can do to make themselves happier, they typically think about what they can add to their life—a new relationship, a new diet—rather than what they can take away. “The pandemic has taught us that there are negotiable things that we can subtract from our schedules,” she said, “and some of those subtractions feel good.”

As people get vaccinated, though, they’ll likely be focused on addition. The first, frenzied wave of socializing could lead to minor tension, as the members of Team Yes and Team Couch realize they have diverging visions of how they’d like to spend their time. Traces of a rivalry are already showing: Kelly Devine, a 33-year-old who works at a small tech company in New York City, told me that she gets mildly irked when she sees people posting on social media about how they dread socializing again. Though she understands the underlying feeling, she said that “people brandish [introversion] about like it’s something cute or unique in a way that annoys me.”

In general, people will hopefully keep in mind that everyone is emerging from a very difficult time and extend members of the other team some compassion. Nicole Pavez, a 26-year-old who works at a health-sciences research center in New York City, can’t wait to pack her schedule with movie nights, workout classes, and parties. But even Pavez, one of the most extroverted people I interviewed for this story, said that, after the pandemic, she expects to be more understanding when an introverted friend bails on plans with her. “This used to be a big struggle for me, but now that I have more experience being alone, I know it is something I have grown to handle better,” she said.

A good amount of kindness will be in order during the earliest stages of post-pandemic social reintegration, when in-person hangouts will likely feel especially exhausting. Basically, we are out of practice. Santos said that tracking facial expressions and body language can be cognitively draining after an extended period of not doing those things in person very much. The good news is that she expects people will reacclimate and this extra exhaustion will be temporary. When it does fade, whatever team we end up on, we should bear in mind that not everyone had the same revelations during the pandemic that we did.