BY PAUL HOPKINS
The vaccine roll-out and now the lifting of the so many restrictions imposed on us the past 15 months is great room for optimism. But the so-longed-for return to normality may, just may, not be what we imagine or necessarily like. The changes that have occurred globally — in societies, in economics, in science and, predominately, in our lifestyles and relationships — may be with us for some considerable time to come, with some changes here to stay. The countless deaths and illnesses and job losses and God-knows-what-else awfulness aside, the pandemic has changed the way we were and, in some instances, irrevocably.
To cite some obvious changes, technology has allowed many to work from home, Zoom being the new buzzword, whatever its drawbacks; social distancing has become a kind of norm, down with that huggy-touchy-feely sort of thing, and mask wearing the new fashion accessory. Above all, none of us could have imagined the isolation, the stress, the loneliness, the disconnect that 2020 would visit upon us.
I have seen many I know go through their own Private Idaho, utter meltdown, quite contrary to character or expectation. The toll on people’s mental well-being is a reality we should not underestimate. We all need to reach out now to those poor in spirit. Others have been more resilient. My own age group have been, I would suggest, a lot more at ease with the lockdowns — as we age, it takes less to please us, perhaps — whereas the young, by nature needing to forage in packs, have suffered the most; for example, the college experience, and all the wonderful discoveries that that should entail, being confined to the box-room.
This pandemic has changed many of us, even if only in how we will now value what we previously took for granted, a change – and I’m taking a giant leap here in restoring my faith in human nature – that’s for the better. I see it in little interactions every day. The lockdowns have given us a chance to pause and take stock and re-evaluate ourselves and our fellow travellers and what really matters — family and friends and not the dreaded daily commute or the job or must-have gizmo. Hopefully, this rethinking is not merely momentary.
Directly or indirectly, the pandemic has caused a major change in many people’s circumstances. Maybe it has resulted in a new career, perhaps family circumstances changed, or there was a reconnecting with old friends, or new ones found. And so it goes.
It might do us the world of good to be taking stock of our lives and rearranging priorities to match values, newly learned or realised. My psychologist friend says a crisis of this scale can enable people to pull the trigger on major life decisions they had been putting off, such as moving in with a partner, quitting a job they hate for a more satisfying one, or getting married – or divorced.
The person who emerges from quarantine doesn’t have to be the same old you. Scientists say that people can change their personalities well into adulthood. And what better time for transformation than now, when no one has seen you for a year, and might have forgotten what you were like in the first place?
It was long thought that people just were a certain way, and would remain that way forever. The Greeks, in particular the physician Hippocrates, long ago believed that people’s personalities were governed by the amounts of phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile that flowed through their bodies.
Modern science, of course, has long since discarded notions of bile and being good or bad humoured. And, now, it appears the idea that our personalities are immutable is also not quite true. Researchers have found that adults can readily change the five traits that make up personality — extroversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
Changing a trait requires acting in ways that embody that trait, rather than simply thinking about it. Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, puts it in his book ‘The As If Principle’ (Simon & Schuster) that you can behave “as if” you are the person you want to be.
And pretty soon you might find that it is that you underneath that badly needed hair-do.
Give yourself time, though. The pandemic will end, but its scars may take a while to heal.