On the most immediate level, the pandemic has been a tragedy on a global scale. But there are also second-order (and higher) effects, many of which will continue to ripple into the future.
We spend more time at home, working remotely, shopping for needs, and taking lessons online. Air purifiers and regular duct cleaning are deemed essential for a healthy indoor environment. When we do go outdoors, we observe safe distancing, wear face masks, and are always ready to wash our hands or spray sanitizer.
There are many other changes taking place in society besides these individual practices. But on a personal level, most of us are anticipating a return to normal at some point.
Yet that also raises the question of whether these behavioral shifts will reverse once the pandemic has lifted. And if their effects might linger, can we somehow harness that potential to create lasting good habits?
Looking to the past
Many of the changes that have occurred since the coronavirus outbreak are actually the result of two combined forces: the pandemic itself, and the economic downturns it inflicted.
People fear Covid-19, a threat that was initially underestimated and poorly understood. Months after the outbreak, experts are continuing to discover more about its mechanisms and long-term effects, such as possible reinfections and outcomes.
They also feel anxious due to a recession. Businesses are closing, and workers are getting furloughed. These are powerful socio-economic forces at work, and nobody can live untouched through these times.
But do such effects last? One way to answer this question is to seek insights from the past. A century ago, the world witnessed a similar pandemic in the Spanish flu of 1918. Despite its severity, the outbreak itself didn’t last long. In fact, it had been largely forgotten before Covid-19 caused interest in it to resurge.
Perhaps more relevant to the modern scenario, though, is the Great Depression. Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, it lasted ten years. It led to prolonged departures from behavioral norms, many of which persisted for years after.
Children were expected to take on a greater share of responsibilities, including manual labor or cooking dinner. Survivors of the Depression would refuse to throw away items that could prove to be useful, even during subsequent eras of plenty.
The mechanics of habit
It shouldn’t be surprising that a year-long pandemic wouldn’t result in long-term changes, while a decade-long recession did. But applying those forecasts to modern circumstances isn’t straightforward.
Duration of exposure to certain conditions isn’t the only factor that goes into determining behavioral change. Many scientists have been studying the realm of behavioral psychology with a particular focus on habit formation.
The most common framework for understanding habits is the ‘habit loop’. Popularized by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, it involves three steps: a cue, a response, and a reward.
Within the context of the pandemic, for instance, we can easily form habits such as frequent hand washing. We are constantly surrounded by reminders of how Covid-19 can spread and how important it is to sanitize our hands after contact with potentially infected surfaces.
Those outside reminders serve as a cue, triggering the desired response. We are rewarded by social approval as well as the sense of self-preservation. And the same effects are at work when we sacrifice working remotely or do not attend events and gatherings.
Yet the process of habit formation also implies that these behavioral patterns can be broken. Lift the environmental cues, and they go away.
If the pandemic’s danger is perceived to have passed, for instance, when a vaccine is available to the public, then many of these habits may fade away. As businesses find ways to adapt and thrive, more jobs will be created, and the economy rebounds. People will be willing to spend again.
We can’t control some of these cues, of course. They are in the hands of governments and medical experts. But we can take ownership of small-scale habit formation.
Doing so can help turn this period of uncertainty and isolation into one of positive lifestyle changes. Focusing on health and fitness habits can make a remarkable difference.
By June 2020, about three-quarters of American adults had gained weight due to physical activity changes tied to the pandemic. Changing your habits in response can turn this negative influence into a positive one.
Use your remote working or studying routine as a cue into which you can integrate added exercise or healthy food preparation. Be mindful of when this situation’s stress triggers cravings for unhealthy snacks or substances, and eliminate those cues or divert them into constructive action. No matter how long this new reality lasts, you can emerge from it with a better lifestyle.