If there was ever a perfect time to make a life change, this is it.
Behavioral scientists have long known that times of disruption and trauma also create new opportunities for growth and change. Disruption happens when life knocks us out of our normal routines.
For many of us, there’s never been a bigger life disruption than the pandemic.
“I think this fresh start is really a big opportunity,” says Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”
“I don’t know when we’ll have another one like it. Everything is on the table to start fresh.”
Milkman’s research has focused on the science of new beginnings. Milkman and her colleagues have found that we’re most inclined to make meaningful changes around “temporal landmarks” — points in time that we associate with a new beginning. New Year’s Day is the most obvious, but birthdays, the start of spring, the start of a new school year, even the beginning of the week or the first of the month create psychological opportunities for change.
For many people, the lifting of pandemic restrictions and getting vaccinated means returning to more-normal work and school routines. It’s exactly the kind of psychological new beginning that could prompt the fresh-start effect, Milkman says.
It’s Not Too Late to Reset
As the pandemic recedes, some people worry that the past year of lockdowns and time at home was a missed opportunity. Leslie Scott, a nonprofit event organizer in Eugene, Oregon, says she feels that she just muddled through a stressful year.
“I sometimes wonder if I squandered this gift of time,” says Scott.
While some people did develop healthy new habits during lockdowns, it’s not too late if you spent your pandemic days just getting by. The good news is that the end of the pandemic is probably a more opportune time for meaningful change than when you were experiencing the heightened anxiety of lockdowns.
“There’s lots of evidence for what’s called post-traumatic growth — that we can come out stronger and with a bit more meaning in our lives after going through negative events,” says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale who teaches a popular online course called The Science of Well-Being.
So What’s Your Next Chapter?
One of the biggest obstacles to change has been that we tend to have established routines that are hard to break. But the pandemic shattered routines, setting us up for a reset, Santos says.
“I think many of us were realizing that aspects of our work and family life and even our relationships probably need to change if we want to be happier.”
One reason fresh starts can be so effective is that humans tend to think about the passage of time in chapters or episodes, rather than on a continuum, Milkman says. As a result, we tend to think of the past in terms of unique periods, such as our high school years, the college years, the years we worked at a certain job. Going forward, we’re likely to look back on the pandemic year as a similarly unique chapter of our lives.
“It’s easier to attribute any failings to ‘the old me.’ You feel like you can achieve more now, because we’re in a new chapter.”