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Return to normal: because we must accept that it will not happen



It has become a worn phrase that our politicians, officials, pundits, even family, love to rely on – a definitive and elusive prize.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for the world of January, a place where daily life most closely resembled our past decades. Maybe it’s an attempt to show control, to go back to a time when change wasn’t so universally imposed on us.

But January has long passed and it will not return. And, psychologists will tell you, it’s only bad if you can’t come to terms with it.

We are slowly learning if this year’s changes are permanent. If work – for the lucky ones among us – will stay away from home. If we visit the grocery store less but spend more. If we find that wearing a mask on the subway is only part of life. If the handshake and hug will become less common. If most of your daily interactions will be via videoconference (rather than in person).

“Five years of change in six months”
; is a common slogan for the pandemic. The upheaval has disrupted human lives in lost jobs and relatives living alone or perhaps died without saying goodbye.

However, permanently severing ties with January isn’t necessarily a bad thing, psychologists say. The danger comes from the desire to return to normal, rather than trying to figure out how to deal with everything that lies ahead.

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“Politicians pretending that ‘normal’ is around the corner are making fun of themselves or their followers, or maybe both,” said Thomas Davenport, the president’s distinguished professor of technology and information management at Babson College in Wellesley. , Massachusetts.

“People who suffer from tragedy eventually return to their previous level of happiness,” Davenport said via email. “But I think COVID-19 is a little different, because we keep expecting it to end soon. So there’s no need to permanently change your attitudes about it.”

The human tendency to believe that change is temporary and that the future will resemble the past again is often called “bias to normal.”
People who do not adapt to change believe that what they remember as “normal” will return and delay changing their daily routine or outlook. Those who refuse to wear masks may be guilty of prejudice to normality, Davenport said, as they perceive this intrusion into lives as a passing fad they don’t need to embrace.

Wired to fit

However, brain circuits prefer to survive: while one part of our mind may be prone to resist change as we believe disasters are a passing event, another stronger part of our brain quickly embraces the new.

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“Hedonic adaptation” is the elaborate name for why we survive: it is the mind’s ability to quickly accept something in your environment that would have stopped you in your tracks weeks ago. Originally intended to protect humans from predators, it is hardwired, so we don’t constantly see all relatively new things as threats and miss out on the newest and biggest ones.

“When good and bad things happen, you get intense emotions at first,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “Then you adjust and go back to baseline. This is much more powerful with positive events. People don’t fully adjust to negative changes in their lives.”

The advantage of hedonic adaptation is that it works in all directions. Changes that alter daily life in one month can be quickly eliminated the next when they are no longer relevant. “It could be mask adaptation as the new normal,” Lyubomirsky said, before dropping the mask, “and then readjust to the old normal.”

The behaviors that are maintained are those that are inserted into our daily routine, that are “activated automatically,” he said. “If it’s a real habit, it can actually maintain itself. Now we wash our hands more often without even thinking about it. This is something that could definitely stay with us.”

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It is the same with the previous generation that grew up during the Depression and is still particularly demanding not to waste food or anything. It is a habit that has remained with them.

Yet short-term changes are easily abandoned. Lyubomirsky recalled an outdoor meeting of academics he attended in Montana last summer, where Covid tests were administered and protocols were maintained.

Within minutes, the participants’ behavior had returned to pre-pandemic proximity to each other.

“We all went back as if the pandemic wasn’t happening,” he said. “Everyone was just a little cheerful. I didn’t even notice I was doing it until later.”

Life is essentially a series of changes and adaptations, he said, and the latter is something humans do well. People tend to give more weight to what they’re feeling at the moment, Lyubomirsky said.

He recalled a vegetarian friend who started eating meat again when the pandemic made it seem useless. Another friend dyed her hair, without explanation. “She’s like, ‘Why fuck you. I’ll color my hair blue.'”

“We are overweight,” he said. “It’s so wonderful, or it’s so awful. But it tends to come back.”

Our circuit tends to override our doomscrolling. “We are actually more resilient than we think.”

As with everything, we will discover how resilient we are and the future may seem normal again, however different it is.

Nick Paton Walsh is an Emmy Award-winning international security editor for CNN International based in London and focuses on stories from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan and the surrounding region, and Latin America.


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