Will the Pandemic Change People Like the Great Depression Did?

This trigger can come in the form of a “temporal landmark”—Milkman has studied the importance of recurring ones, such as new years, new weeks, and birthdays, in prompting behavior adjustments—or a change, big or small, that interrupts well-trodden patterns. “We’ve got both things going on with the pandemic,” she said. “There’s a mental time boundary—everyone’s like, ‘Whoa, in March of 2020, I opened a new chapter’—and we have this constraint [of social distancing] that forces us to explore new things. So it’s a double whammy.”

In this way, the pandemic has led to welcome discoveries for some. “After being locked indoors for months I realized my skin and hair look great without any products, expensive creams, serums, conditioners, or treatments,” said Lizzette Arroyo, a 34-year-old in Ontario, California, who teaches community-college economics classes. She anticipates that, after the pandemic, she’ll greatly reduce her previously $100-a-month skin-care budget, and buy less new clothing and wear less makeup as well.

Naomi Thyden, a 31-year-old doctoral student in Minnesota, said that she’s been happily wearing a bra less often during the pandemic, including out of the house. “The only reason a lot of people wear bras is because our breasts, as they exist naturally, are deemed inappropriate by society,” she told me. “For some people bras provide needed support, but for a lot of us they serve no other purpose and are uncomfortable.”

And Caitlin Kunkel, a 36-year-old writer and humorist living in Brooklyn, has stopped carrying a big bag when she leaves the house, because she’s no longer out and about for extended periods. She expects she’ll be less likely to bring it with her even after the pandemic. “I’ve gotten used to not having shooting pain up my left shoulder,” she said. “That big shoulder bag full of 12 hours’ [worth] of stuff is a relic of 2019 and before.”

The constraints of the present moment have even helped some break established, unhealthy habits. Smith, the New Orleanian, has been smoking for most of the past 40 years, but she quit six weeks ago. “The pandemic was a time when I really couldn’t go anywhere or do much of anything and I felt this was a good time to start, since any crabbiness wouldn’t impact anyone else,” she told me. Likewise, Zach Millard, a 28-year-old in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, used to have about 15 to 20 drinks a week, in part because it soothed his social anxiety. But when the pandemic kept him at home, he started drinking less and reflecting on his habit. “If COVID-19 never happened … I would have barreled right into alcoholism,” he told me. He’s now down to two or three drinks a week.

Of course, the pandemic can just as easily promote unwelcome behaviors. “In general, the more out of control [peoples’] life circumstances, the more stressed they feel by what is going on around them, and the less social support people experience, the more vulnerable they are to using maladaptive coping,” Bethany Brand, a clinical-psychology professor at Towson University, told me. That can manifest as excessive sleeping or drinking, among other things. Further, Brand said, the threats of the pandemic can fuel anxiety, including after they’re gone.