I live on top of a hill in rural Umbria, Italy, and at no point in my 11 years here have I been more grateful to be smack in the middle of nowhere. In the nearly two months I’ve been in lockdown with my family, I’ve gone from feeling anxious and frustrated to feeling safe. Not just safe from contracting coronavirus, but really safe — like this-is-where-I’m-supposed-to-stay-forever safe.
For my husband, our 8-year-old daughter and me, daily life is filled with more of the good and less of the bad. Good: extra cuddles on lazy mornings (and that’s most mornings), a simple, long-delayed home repair finally completed, my recent mastery of bread-baking. Bad: no morning squabbles over brushing hair, no arguing over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher or whose work schedule takes precedence. Is it any wonder I don’t want these halcyon days to end anytime soon?
As I started quietly admitting that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to life and routines going back to the way they were before early March, I found I wasn’t the only one reluctant to let go of the warm fuzzies. “It’s not just the fear of breaking out of the cocoon and facing what’s out there,” says Barbara Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The slowing down of being at home allows us to feel different kinds of positive emotions that we typically race past, like the coziness of connections, the deep-in-your-bones gratitude at being healthy, of being able to access decent food.”
We may have been healthy, loved, and well fed before lockdown but man, do we appreciate it a lot more now.
“Lockdown has had some unexpected benefits,” says Carol Tavris, a widely published social psychologist, “assuming you’re one of the lucky ones whose survival is not on the line. We feel safer in a world that had been, and still is, getting crazier and less predictable by the day, and calmer without the stress of normal life [traffic, competition, noise, pollution].” Stay-at-home orders, she says, “provide the chance to do nothing at all without guilt, and the time to dawdle and dream.”
“The simple life of isolation can be quite liberating,” says Beth Healey, an emergency medicine doctor who spent a year at the European Space Agency’s Concordia base in Antarctica studying the effects of long-term isolation on her handful of colleagues. “Some people really flourished in isolation,” she says. “They learned a language, they made art. For many, it was a rich period of personal growth.”
It’s one thing to take some guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure in the newfound “freedoms” of lockdown, but what about actually dreading a return to old routines? Healey says several of her colleagues were not too keen to go back to civilization, even after their long, dark months in Antarctica. Some enjoyed the daily structure, their role in the crew and the organized nature of life in a research station.
When the first plane landed, heralding the end of the Antarctic winter and the reopening of the base to the outside world, “there was some resentment,” she says. “They didn’t want the experience to end.” A few, upon returning home, quickly applied to overwinter again. “These weren’t people who were without support networks,” she says. “But they were overwhelmed by the return to normal life.”
While Healey and her crew were isolated for up to a year, many of us will start to emerge from our lockdown cocoons after just a couple of months. Still, that’s long enough for new habits to have formed. Fredrickson explains that whatever we’ve been doing for the last month or so — whether that’s sleeping in, baking bread, or talking to the dog — has become our new state of normal.
“If things fall out of our experience,” she says, “we become wary of them. The things we no longer do lose their appeal.” Because we’re connected to our recent history of enjoyment, she says, “We have to learn to like once-routine activities all over again.” In the abstract, we know what we would like — to return to work, school, and social engagements. “But the creature self,” she says, “that which gives us emotion, is wary of changing the routine we’ve learned to like in the last month.”
Even if we’ve not been rendered sick or jobless during the pandemic, Fredrickson points out, we’ve all been traumatized. When the stoppage of routine life leads to positive outcomes, the effect is even more beguiling. “It’s easy to forget that it’s still a trauma. Having virtually every aspect of our lives changed is traumatic.”
Preparing for a return to normal
Healey thinks that the gradual return to pre-lockdown life — with phased-in reopenings and a slow easing of social restrictions — will probably be helpful for all of us “We’ve all been in it together,” she says, “and I think that will be comforting on a psychological level.” Her own experience in returning from polar isolation was that, while she didn’t forget how to socialize, she says: “I felt a little less good at it. It took a while — maybe three or four weeks — for me to feel totally at ease in social situations.”
Yet “normal” is a more relative term now than it’s ever been. Healey recalls that when she returned from Antarctica, “other than the new iPhone having come out, the world that I left and came back to was the same.”
We’re uncertain about what the post-coronavirus world is going to look like, but it’s safe to assume it will take some getting used to. Healey recommends baby steps. “Be easy on yourself. Don’t run into the center of a busy city if you’ve been isolating in the countryside,” she says. “Start your social engagements with familiar people, rather than trying to see all your friends at once as soon as we’re let back out.”
Fredrickson, whose research focuses on the effects of positive emotions on mental health, hopes we’ll be able to carry forward some of the good stuff of lockdown into the new reality that awaits us. “Because of the existential threat [of coronavirus], people are thinking a lot more about what makes life worthwhile,” she says, “and of what makes up a good day.” We’ll be easing back into pre-pandemic routines slowly, so the transition presents an opportunity to reflect on the parts of lockdown we liked, whether it was more time for cooking, family, or hobbies, and incorporate them into our post-pandemic lives.
“It’s been a forced experiment in living differently,” says Fredrickson. “But maybe this will help people realize they need to do good things for themselves.” Lockdown allows us a period to reset our values and priorities. “Think of it,” she says, “as a meditation retreat by proxy.”
Heath is an author, editor and travel writer based in central Italy. Her website is elizabethfheath.com .