Harvard Behavioral Scientist: Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Before Returning to ‘Normal’

Jessica Stillman
4 min readJun 22, 2021


The pandemic has changed how we work, where we live, and how we socialize. But not all the shifts wrought by the virus are external. It has also probably changed your personality, psychologists say.

These shifts are as unique as our individual pandemic experiences, so it’s not that everyone has suddenly become more or less social or conscientious thanks to a year in lockdown. Instead, experts suggest the pandemic has been an agent of something known as the Michelangelo effect.

The Michelangelo effect and the pandemic

The theory goes that, like the great Renaissance sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal David underneath, stressful life events chip away at the poses, self-delusions, and convenient fictions that can build up around our true character and desires. Events like the pandemic force us to confront who we really are, and that often shifts our personalities and our goals.

No wonder the media is full of reports of people changing jobs or careers, uprooting themselves, and generally re-imaging their lives. Psychology is pretty clear that while the virus will hopefully recede, we’ll never go back entirely to the “normal” of before.

Which means, Harvard behavioral scientist Arthur C. Brooks writes in his Atlantic column, that we all need to “start preparing for a new and better normal than what we took for granted until a year ago.” How do you do that? Brooks helpfully suggests a three-step exercise to clarify what parts of your old life you want to return to and which pandemic shifts you want to bring with you into the future.

1. How will I fill in this 2X2?

Make a two-by-two matrix and write “like” and “dislike” across the top and “pandemic” and “pre-pandemic” down the side. Then fill it up. Reflecting about what was working and not working for you both before and during the pandemic is the essential first step to thinking through what you want your ‘new normal’ to look like.

“Commit to complete honesty — especially in the one about what you don’t miss from pre-pandemic times,” Brooks instructs. “Be specific about any of your daily…



Jessica Stillman

Top Inc.com columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast. https://jessicastillman.com/