Today, many of us have an opportunity to do something similar. Americans might be entering the waning days of the year-plus coronavirus pandemic, during which life’s ordinary patterns have paused for millions of people. In these last weeks and months before something resembling normality returns, we might ask ourselves, “What do I want ‘normal’ to look like?” Then, we can start preparing for a new and better normal than what we took for granted until a year ago.
When people talk about life before the virus, their recollections are often sentimental: about the “good old days”; about what we miss. In one recent survey, the specific things people said they yearned for most were traveling (24 percent), visiting family (19 percent), and hanging out with friends (16 percent).
I haven’t been able to find any surveys of what we most don’t miss from pre-pandemic times. But there is research that gives us clues. Studies have shown that spending time on people or activities that bring us down depresses our sense of meaning in life; unpleasant exchanges with bosses, customers, and co-workers lower our sense of well-being.
Read: The hidden toll of remote work
During pre-pandemic life you might have said, “I like my job,” and “I like my social life.” Maybe you meant it, and maybe you didn’t: Social scientists have long shown that most people are inveterate liars, and might be even more adept at lying to themselves. Either way, it was certainly convenient to say your life made you happy, wasn’t it? Researchers find that people who hold unpopular views usually keep them private or “live lies” to avoid conflict. I am willing to bet that in some areas of your pre-pandemic life, you were also deceiving yourself to avoid rocking your own boat. But then your boat was capsized by the coronavirus.
We all yearn for the end of the human suffering brought about by the pandemic. And many, if not most, of us look forward to the end of the constraints and inconveniences it has imposed. But deep inside, there are probably a few things you dread about going back to normal life. Each of us, if we are brutally honest, could make a list of the activities and relationships that we didn’t like in pre-pandemic times, but that we accepted through self-deception, sheer inertia, and the pressure to go along and get along.
If your relationships, work, and life have been disrupted by the pandemic, the weeks and months before you fully reenter the world should not be wasted. They are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come clean with yourself—to admit that all was not perfectly well before. Here’s how you can make a plan not to return to normal.
1. Collect your data.
On a piece of paper, draw a two-by-two matrix, where the columns are what you like and dislike, and the rows are pre-pandemic and pandemic times. Many of us have taken to asking each other, over the past year or so, what we miss from before the pandemic and hate about living through it. But for your happiness, the more germane questions are “What did I dislike from before the pandemic and don’t miss?” and “What do I like from the pandemic times that I will miss?”