David Brooks: How COVID isolation can change your personality

My extroversion muscles have atrophied while my introversion muscles are bulging.

New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago in 2012.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the latest stage of the pandemic hard in its own distinct way. The cumulative effect of a year of repetition, isolation and stress has induced a lassitude — a settling into the familiar, with feelings of vulnerability. The shock of a year ago has been replaced by a sluggish just-getting-to-the-end.

I’ve got the same scattered memory issues many others in this Groundhog Day life describe: walking into a room and wondering why I went there; spending impressive amounts of time looking for my earbuds; forgetting the names of people and places outside my COVID bubble.

My extroversion muscles have atrophied while my introversion muscles are bulging. If you tracked me on a personality chart, I suppose “liveliness” would be down and “reserved” would be up; “carefree” down and “anxious” up.

Which gets me wondering how a year-plus of social distancing has changed our personalities. The good news is that personality traits are pretty stable. They change, but gradually over decades. In normal times, they generally change for the better. Research shows that most people get more calm, self-confident and socially sensitive as they mature.

But we are molded by our experiences and it would be shocking if an experience this jarring didn’t mold us in some important way.

Those who’ve lost a loved one or nearly died themselves have their own hard stories to tell. Adolescents and young adults have generally had a hellish time, at least in my circles, forced into solitude at the very moment when their identities are most vividly forming.

I’ve been exceptionally lucky — in family and in health — and can speak only about the effects of isolation, rather than the disease itself. I’d say the most underappreciated effect has been the accumulation of absences — the joys we missed rather than the blows we received. My favorite sound is people laughing around a table at a bar late at night. That has been absent for a year, and I would hate to see a chart that tracked how many times Americans laughed each day, 2019 v. 2020.

There are all the concerts we didn’t go to, the plays and dinner parties we didn’t enjoy. Few of us got to experience the delight of finding ourselves in a social set we knew nothing about. This is a loss of emotional nutrition. It manifests socially as loneliness. Thirty-six percent of Americans, including 61% of young adults, report “serious loneliness,” according to a survey by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard.

I’ve been surprised by how much it feels like not just a social problem but a moral one. We say we feel a sense of purpose and mission when we are serving a cause larger than ourselves. But I’ve learned this year how much having a feeling of purpose depends on the small acts of hospitality we give and receive each day, sometimes with people we don’t know all that well.

It’s hosting a dinner party and noticing that somebody’s glass is nearly empty. It’s having a stranger on a plane confide something in you and you being a momentary presence in her life. I used to have my meetings at the same coffee shop in D.C. and all around me I’d overhear conversations between friends offering each other counsel and care.

Those little acts, giving fruit to each other, turn out to be tremendously fortifying. Feeling like you have a sense of purpose, it turns out, is not just about the big commitments, but also the small gift exchanges you have with your middle-ring friends.

Those opportunities have been diminished, and my work has expanded to fill the hours. I’ve unwittingly asked work to provide things it is incapable of supplying.

This year should have been the ideal opportunity to take a step back and self-reflect. I know a lot of people who’ve done important inner work this year, and a lot who were just too exhausted. I’ve found it hard recently to plan for the future, because from the continent of lockdown I’ve found it hard to imagine what life will be like when this is over and we live in the continent of freedom.

Pandemic year feels like a parenthesis in our life narratives. How will we, those of us whose losses have been comparatively small, think about this experience five years from now — as a gift, an anguish or perhaps just a void?

I’m trying to describe a year in which we’ve all been physically hunkered down but socially and morally less connected. This has induced, at least in me, a greater fragility but also a great sense of flexibility, and a greater potential for change.

I’ve found I’ve burned out on my screens, burned out about the politicization of everything, and have rediscovered my love for the New York Mets. People who have endured an era of vulnerability emerge with great strength.

I’m also convinced that the second half of this year is going to be more fantastic than we can imagine right now. We are going to become hyper-appreciators, savoring every small pleasure, living in a thousand delicious moments, getting together with friends and strangers and seeing them with the joy of new and grateful eyes.

David Brooks | The New York Times (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.