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Harvard Behavioral Scientist: Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Before Returning to ‘Normal’

The pandemic has changed how we work, where we live, and how we socialize. But not all the shifts wrought by the virus are external. It has also probably changed your personality, psychologists say. 

These shifts are as unique as our individual pandemic experiences, so it’s not that everyone has suddenly become more or less social or conscientious thanks to a year in lockdown. Instead, experts suggest the pandemic has been an agent of something known as ‘the Michelangelo effect.’

The Michelangelo effect and the pandemic

The theory goes that, like the great Renaissance sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal David underneath, stressful life events chip away at the poses, self-delusions, and convenient fictions that can build up around our true character and desires. Events like the pandemic force us to confront who we really are, and that often shifts our personalities and our goals.  

No wonder the media is full of reports of people changing jobs or careers, uprooting themselves, and generally re-imaging their lives. Psychology is pretty clear that while the virus will hopefully recede, we’ll never go back entirely to the “normal” of before. 

Which means, Harvard behavioral scientist Arthur C. Brooks writes in his Atlantic column, that we all need to “start preparing for a new and better normal than what we took for granted until a year ago.” How do you do that? Brooks helpfully suggests a three-step exercise to clarify what parts of your old life you want to return to and which pandemic shifts you want to bring with you into the future. 

1. How will I fill in this 2X2?  

Make a two-by-two matrix and write ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ across the top and ‘pandemic’ and ‘pre-pandemic’ down the side. Then fill it up. Reflecting about what was working and not working for you both before and during the pandemic is the essential first step to thinking through what you want your ‘new normal’ to look like. 

“Commit to complete honesty–especially in the one about what you don’t miss from pre-pandemic times,” Brooks instructs. “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. What should I leave behind? 

You should now have a fairly thorough list of your likes and dislikes from the before times and life during lockdown. Now you have to figure out what to do with it. The next step, according to Brooks, is asking yourself what aspects of your pre-pandemic life you’re going 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,” Brooks writes. (Science suggests moving will have a bigger impact on your happiness than you probably think it will.)

Consider too if you need to leave behind any relationships. You probably let some connections fall by the wayside this past year, do you really want to pick them all up again?  

3. What should I keep?

“This exercise shouldn’t be all negative,” Brooks reminds readers. Also consider “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.” 

Maybe you started taking a daily walk, cut down on travel, or picked up a hobby and found yourself much happier for it. There is no need these new habits have to end when the pandemic does. 

Just about everyone is excited to exit this long, horrible year of sickness and disruption. But don’t be in such a rush to get back to normal that you fail to learn all you can about yourself from the hard experience we’ve all just been through. All it takes is answering a few simple but profound questions. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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