There's no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic was tough. It turned our world upside down. It disrupted our routines, forced us to stay home, made us confront the fragility of life and pushed us well beyond the limits of our comfort zone.
But amid our collective fear and suffering, there were some silver linings. We learned to be kind and care for our neighbor, we slowed down, parents spent more time with their kids — in person and on Zoom. We focused more on our physical and mental health and learned to appreciate the smallest things we used to take for granted. We proved to ourselves how resilient we are, and we treated each other with compassion.
As the United States rushes to get "back to normal," there are some lessons learned from our time under lockdown that we should keep, and even build upon, to create a new normal — better than the one before.
Here are five ways the pandemic can improve how we live on the other side of it.
Keep family closer and work more flexible
Stuck at home with toddlers or teenagers and juggling work was a nightmare for many as offices and schools suddenly shut overnight. But slowly — and not necessarily by choice — work hours became more flexible as parents scheduled meetings around virtual classes and mealtimes for their kids.
Children "Zoom-bombing" meetings became the norm, work calls taken on walks were encouraged, and we gave up trying to be perfect for being human. Most importantly, families who were physically together spent much more time with each other, reminding us how precious those relationships are.
For those separated from their loved ones, "family" took on a new meaning with friends, neighbors or strangers in their community forming sacred pandemic bubbles. Even families miles apart spent more screen time together as we checked in on each other, commiserated and celebrated milestones virtually.
The word "office" came to mean a bedroom, closet, outdoor coffee shop or (for the lucky ones) a sun lounger by the pool. But we realized that we could be effective and productive making "work" fit into our circumstances rather than adapting our lives to fit a corporate mold.
And as our tunnel vision on work widened, it allowed life in all its beauty and horror to teach us how to live a more rounded and fulfilling existence.
Focus more on mental health
The pandemic affected us individually in different ways. There was no guidebook on how to get through it but collectively, there was a shift to self-care, to give ourselves space and patience in our vulnerability in order to work through it.
For some that was journaling, others took daily walks or long bubble baths. Self-care was no longer seen as an indulgence but a necessity to keep going.
We had candid conversations with people and set boundaries for ourselves as we prioritized our mental health — seeking help, crying, dancing, screaming or laughing for no reason — almost nothing was off the table as long as it was helping.
That focus on our mental health allowed us to grow, to get to know ourselves better and face buried demons or forgotten dreams and work on our personal self-improvement.
"We don't have a vaccine for our mental health like we do for our physical health," Lisa Carlson, former president of the American Public Health Association and an executive administrator at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told CNN.
"I really hope that above all, this is really the moment when we break down barriers to talking about mental health because I think the most important thing we can do — as professionals and in our families and in our communities — is to talk about it," she said.
Lockdown forced us to try new ways of doing things. It wasn't easy but the impossible became possible and many of us now have a more empowered perspective of our capabilities.
Forced out of work, many learned new skills. Chefs started selling direct to consumer on Instagram. Others changed profession entirely like French actor turned baker Richaud Valls. His lockdown attempts to recreate a baguette from his childhood home in Paris unveiled a passion for baking that has now led to a full-time business.
With gyms closed we embraced more old-fashioned forms of exercise such as running, biking or walking. We joined virtual workouts which, in turn, opened them up to a new, wider audience.
And from doctors' appointments to weddings to religious worship and concerts — everyone learned to Zoom, where many amazing things happened over the last year.
Most notably, it proved that we are resilient — and hopefully the darkest days of the pandemic are behind us.
Remember the global 7 p.m. applause for our health care workers? Remember how grateful we felt for any random act of kindness from a stranger's smile to a ray of sunshine?
The bleakness of the pandemic and universal suffering helped us see the good things that happened in a new light. We appreciated what we had so often taken for granted. Spontaneous performances filled us with joy, leaving our house for a walk was a moment to cherish. Smallest victories became a reason to celebrate.
We focused on others, checking in on them, buying groceries for those more vulnerable who couldn't risk exposure. Communities rallied to share food and essential supplies. We felt like we were all in this together with a common COVID-19 enemy.
And yet, as we in the U.S. begin to turn the corner, around the world, so many countries are still suffering. They are nowhere near the U.S. in overcoming the pandemic. Similarly, not everyone has the luxury of a hybrid-model of work, many are still unemployed or paralyzed by fear or grief.
Realizing how fortunate some of us are and being grateful for it is an important mindset for recovery. Those of us with that privilege must remember that our good fortune is an opportunity to lift others up.
Improve the planet
It was one of the videos that went viral during 2020's first lockdown: a dolphin swimming close to the surface in what was purported to be a Venetian canal. It was fake of course — it turned out to have been shot near the port in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia. But the real news is that Earth's health did improve this last year.
The dip in global carbon emissions, as flights were canceled along with our daily commute, led to an improvement in air equality for more than 80% of countries around the world.
IQAir's 2020 World Air Quality Report said human-related emissions from industry and transport fell during lockdowns, and 65% of global cities analyzed experienced better air quality in 2020 compared to 2019. Some 84% of nations polled reported air quality improvements overall.
Even when we did venture out, we walked more or cycled instead of taking a car or public transportation. We shopped less and had less waste overall as the majority of people were working from home.
While those trends may soon be reversed as traveling becomes safe again, the pandemic did show us that work meetings or conferences can still be effective remotely. Companies survived and some even thrived with a remote workforce. That time not spent traveling translated into an opportunity for us to do other things or to not be separated from our loved ones for days. And the added bonus is that it helped our planet too.
Ultimately life will never be exactly the same. There's been a huge loss of life and suffering all over the world and that impact will be felt for years to come. But for those lucky enough to start getting back to "normal" — this is an opportunity to collectively redefine what that means.
As Maya Angelou once said, "If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."