How lockdown made us braver and bolder in our life choices

New house? New career? New partner? Turns out there’s nothing like a global pandemic to make us take a long, hard look at our choices

Have you made a post-lockdown life-change? 
Have you made a post-lockdown life-change?  Credit: THOM ATKINSON

First, there came the jogging: I went three times a week, huffing and puffing. Then, against the rumble of frightening headlines and Government press conferences, came quizzes, virtual cocktail nights and a Zoom talent show (my niece’s rendition of Let It Go cutting in and out with the Wi-Fi). Next was the DIY phase: two weeks spent tediously adding coats of paint to my old dining table and chairs, with Netflix auto-playing in the background. Ultimately though, all the busy-work in the world was not enough to distract me from the shock of lockdown, and while key workers and parents certainly had more on their plates than me, I suspect the same bewilderment played out in households everywhere.

This Wednesday marks six months since Boris Johnson grimly told the nation to ‘Stay home’ – though it feels almost like a lifetime. Alone in my flat, a freelancer with dwindling work, I wondered what the culmination of all this quiet time would be: perhaps I’d eventually have a breakdown, or produce a creative masterpiece, or simply start drinking in the mornings. None of those things happened. Instead, one day in July, in a move that pre-lockdown-me had never considered, I found myself applying to go back to university.

After 14 years of writing only as a journalist, next month I will start an MA in creative writing and throw myself into fiction. It felt like the idea emerged fully formed one day, but looking back, I think my brain had been quietly working on it during all those under-occupied months. And I’m not alone in finding that coronavirus has inspired a major decision. In June, a survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 28 per cent of adults said they were planning big changes after the pandemic, with 42 per cent wanting to make a change to their work, 38 per cent to rethink their relationships and 35 per cent to move house.

Pre-lockdown life offered endless ways to avoid thinking about these things: we worked, we socialised and we commuted. This year, however, I twiddled my thumbs. My birthday came and went. Into the void rushed reflection on successes and failures, and questions about what I actually want out of life. I realised that I want my work to be more meaningful, more creative and more personal – and that I miss the stimulation of studying.

‘My theory is that it comes from mortality awareness,’ says Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of upcoming book What We Want. She’s seen many of her clients make big decisions this year. ‘We have never heard death talked about more; it’s a word that is so taboo usually, but it’s everywhere at the moment. In a positive way, some of us have responded to that death anxiety by activating ourselves: OK, this is the moment to get a house, to make that commitment, to try for a baby, to break up with that guy, or to pursue a professional goal that might have seemed out of reach. Because it’s a risky atmosphere anyway, you can throw yourself into the mix – so I think for some people, this period has cultivated courage.’

For me, that’s a new creative path; for others, it means bold changes to their living arrangements. Muireann, 37, has decided that after a decade in London, it’s time to move back to her native Ireland and be close to her parents. ‘I suppose the pandemic underlined the frailty of life,’ she says. Her uncle passed away with Covid early in the crisis. ‘I think everybody started thinking about their family and their elderly parents in a different way.’

She adds that lockdown halted a hectic lifestyle she hadn’t enjoyed for some time; it was when the roller coaster suddenly stopped that she finally had the chance to get off. ‘I think a lot of people will have seen that life as you knew it before – going to the office at 8.30am, leaving at 7pm, commuting – isn’t the only option. I don’t want to go back to my pre-coronavirus way of life.’

Similarly, Emma, 45, has seized the moment to move from the city to the countryside with her husband and 10-year-old twins. It was something they’d often discussed, but the sudden rise in remote working made it possible: ‘My husband was keen to leave before the kids went to senior school, but we’d never quite been able to balance it while he was still expected to be in an office. It’s a big lifestyle shift and I feel really excited about it.’

There’s also a sense that, when events around us are causing despair, humans cope by looking for new purpose. Camilla, 35, had a feeling when lockdown was announced that her days at an advertising agency might be numbered. Planning ahead, she started training for a diploma in hypnobirthing. When she was made redundant in July, she branched out in not one but two directions: as a hypnobirthing teacher and with a letterbox brownie business. ‘The thought of not having any income was scary, but I equally believed that if I could translate passions into work, there could be exciting opportunities.’ With working from home becoming more the norm, she and her husband are joining the city exodus. ‘I could never have predicted how much life would change, but this has been the catalyst for a more fulfilled, happy and healthy future for us.’

Camilla, 35: ‘The thought of no income was scary, but I believed if I could translate passions into work, there could be exciting opportunities’

And for Lauren, 39, it’s brought her desire to have a family into focus. Pre-coronavirus, her job meant she was constantly travelling abroad; suddenly being grounded came as a shock. ‘There was a real shift in the way I felt about things,’ she says. During lockdown, she and her partner made the decision to buy a family house that they can renovate together – and they’re trying for a baby. ‘I just want to be a homebody – I feel like that’s what the future is about. If I couldn’t travel for the next year, and I was in this house with my partner and a baby, I’d be totally content.’

Of course, it’s a huge privilege to be able to take a leap right now; many people are struggling and will continue to do so as the recession bites deeper. But even if we can’t act on our plans in the foreseeable future, a focus on envisaging a better life can get us through a lot of chaos. ‘We still don’t know the basic shape of what’s happening in the world, so we are responding with a strong desire to order things purposefully, to feel that we are accomplishing something worthwhile in this otherwise fragmented moment,’ says Fox Weber. ‘Viktor Frankl talks about this in Man’s Search for Meaning, which interestingly went up in sales at the beginning of lockdown.’

As an Auschwitz survivor, psychiatrist Frankl observed people reacting to the trauma of the Holocaust by seeking meaning and saw that this search made life worth living. One can’t compare the brutality of the Holocaust to being in lockdown, but many of us have responded to the pandemic in a way that chimes with his theories. ‘He felt sorry for people who came after World War II because they didn’t have that kind of struggle,’ says Fox Weber. ‘Struggle and suffering can push you to make meaning.’ Interestingly, she adds, it’s not the outcome that really matters to our life satisfaction – it’s the process. ‘You don’t find meaning, you create it. It’s about agency and self-efficacy. It’s a work in progress, not a permanent condition – but it’s always a worthwhile pursuit.’

Your life-change kit

Considering a new chapter? These motivational books and shows could help.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron:  Published in 1992, this is still indispensable for anyone trying to nurture creativity and build confidence.

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers: Significant change is always scary – this self-help classic will train you not to give up.

The Squiggly Career by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis: A handbook to help you understand your values and play to your work strengths.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle: Made Adele feel ‘as if I just flew into my body for the very first time’. 

The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman: What we can learn from uncertainty, failure and death.

Happier with Gretchen Rubin: Podcast exploring good habits for a more fulfilling life.

Brené Brown: The Call to Courage: A Netflix special on the quest for ‘wholehearted living’.

Have you made any drastic life choices during lockdown? Let us know in the comments section below.