“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
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Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
Her parents always attributed these major character changes to her “bump on the head.” But she told me no—the injury had nothing to do with it. Rather, it was the recovery time, away from ordinary routines, that created a punctuation mark in the long sentence of her life. She had a unique opportunity to assess her priorities. She vowed to take nothing in her former life as given. She tore her beliefs and values down to the studs, and rebuilt them. And in so doing, she said, she became happy for the first time in her life.
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.
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?”
Give some serious reflection to these off-quadrants, and commit to complete honesty—especially in the one about what you don’t miss from pre-pandemic times. Be specific about any of your daily interactions that were toxic, relationships that were unproductive, and the life patterns that made you unhappy. Don’t settle for the easy stuff, like being stuck in traffic. Go deeper, like the friends you always went for drinks with who were relentlessly snarky and negative.
2. Make a list of things to leave behind.
Some of the things you disliked before the pandemic might be unchangeable, such as having to commute in the winter in Syracuse. Start a list of these things, and think carefully about whether you might have more agency than you assumed. While not possible for everyone, for some it might make sense to start looking for a new job somewhere you would prefer to live—maybe even moving to your hometown, if you love it—instead of the place where you found yourself before the lockdowns.
Leaving people behind can be trickier. But in truth, we all have relationships that are simply not mutually beneficial. At work and elsewhere, there are people who bring out the worst in us, belittle us, or just bring us down. If the pandemic has been a welcome furlough from these relationships, you should ask yourself whether you can make that break permanent. This moment is the best chance you might ever have to do so.
3. Make a list of what to keep.
This exercise shouldn’t be all negative. Remember that second off-quadrant: things you like about your pandemic life, and will miss when they stop. Consider how you might work them into your life after case numbers drop for good. Perhaps you stopped traveling for work and found life at home sweet. If so, start thinking now about how to re-engineer your job to include fewer trips, setting up a mix of in-person and virtual meetings for the future that’s more to your liking. Maybe you developed your spiritual life, read a lot, or started cooking, and wish these practices could continue. They can—but only if you do the work. Join a house of worship; organize a book club; put dates on the calendar to host people for dinner.
In his “Poetry of Departures,” the English poet Philip Larkin wrote about a man who walked away from a life he disliked.
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
This fearless adventurer doesn’t have to be someone you hear about fifth-hand—or even secondhand, as in the case of my friend. You have a choice: to be the subject of this poem, who makes the “audacious, purifying / Elemental move,” or the narrator, slightly awestruck but too nervous to make these changes. If you’ve ever wanted to chuck up everything and just clear off, now is your chance. Take it.