Risk it? Or tea and a biscuit?

Have you been spending a lot more time in your comfort zone over the last few months? Are you less willing to take risks? Are you curling up on the sofa in front of a comforting drama or comedy, escaping into a feel-good book and stuffing your life savings under your mattress? If so, it seems you’re not alone.

The pandemic has been changing us as individuals. Some of the changes have been forced upon us: less contact with friends and family, mandatory mask-wearing, encounters with other humans strained by the need to keep two metres away. But other changes – psychological ones – result from how these practical measures are affecting our views and behaviours.

Comfort viewing is one indication of our mental state. The classic TV series Friends has been enjoying a revival, with Courtney Cox herself admitting to binge-watching it. Co-creator Marta Kauffman said she wanted to “write characters who I want to spend time with. These are people I’m going to spend a long time with…’, which explains why Friends might be so popular right now: its viewers feel like they are literally spending time with friends who make them laugh, and that familiarity is hugely soothing. But there is another dimension to this kind of viewing, as seen in the enthusiastic response of 3.3 million viewers to the remake of All Creatures Great And Small after a thirty year absence from our screens. Being transported back to a time when the world was less complicated brings a sense of escape, while the narrower horizons of a pre-global and screen-free community mirror to some extent the shrinking of our world that we’re feeling now (Zoom conversations aside). Similarly the success of Channel 5’s Our Yorkshire Farm points to the desire of living, if only vicariously, a life closer to nature and further away from the urban environments in which many of us spend so much time. Meanwhile the popularity of The Great British Bake Off exploded this year, the 10 million viewers who watched the first episode making it the biggest Channel 4 broadcast since modern records began nearly 20 years ago. The ultimate in comfort viewing, Bake Off will no doubt breathe new life into the baking hobby that took off in many people’s homes during the lockdown.

Which leads us onto comfort food. Social media has been awash with the offerings of proud bread-makers, while raiding the snacks cupboard has been a popular boredom and anxiety-buster, with the disadvantage for many that the calorie-consuming commute has disappeared. Unilever figures for the third quarter showed that ice cream and tea sales were up – along with hand hygiene and home cleaning products – while deodorant sales were down. At least some parts of people’s houses smell nice.

An aversion to risk and a retreat into comfort are evident elsewhere too. People are reporting they find it difficult to concentrate on new books, choosing instead to reread old favourites or else taking up hefty classics like War and Peace and Don Quixote – comforting perhaps in their solid structure and stature, as well as their reminder that human suffering is nothing new and time rolls on whatever happens. This might also explain why people are questioning their spiritual views in the hope of finding relief from anxiety; March 2020 saw Google searches for prayer reaching the highest level ever recorded. But while people search for divine intervention, their concerns are still partly rooted in the material world: investment companies have dealt with a deluge of worried clients wanting to cash out of investments in an unpredictable financial climate.

So we seem to be retreating into comfort zones, or seeking out new ones. But why? Experts explain that we are on ‘high alert’ psychologically; as a result our brains are tired and less likely to expend energy on risky pursuits. Sarah Lewis, Consultant Psychologist at Appreciating Change explains that when we feel threatened, our ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and when the danger has passed we get a sense of relief. ‘The problem with Covid-19,’ she says, ‘is that the resolution of danger doesn’t come. Many of us remain in a stage of hyper-vigilance, unable to divert our attention elsewhere in case we put ourselves at risk…we are scared to let our guard down until we know the danger has passed.’

The question is, which of our new habits are here to stay and what does this mean for society as a whole?

If we’re staying at home more and spending less, one of the most obvious fallouts will be a hit to the economy, even beyond the era of Covid-19. Gallup polls have shown that 11 years after the 2008 financial crisis, Americans were still more likely to save than spend, and it would be reasonable to expect a similar pattern following the pandemic. For the middle classes who have not hitherto faced serious financial struggles, a pandemic can knock confidence in a world that once felt so robust – and if those who have money are less willing to part with it, we have to question what the effect on our wider society will be. Obvious victims will be industry and retail, culture, sport and the charity sector. But will it just be that the nature of these sectors changes rather than the spending of money itself? Over time, as people gradually become more confident with their cash, we will no doubt see more online and local spending, as well as perhaps a move towards self-sufficiency (those lockdown bakers and gardeners boosted by their previous successes). Adversity is well known to produce creativity, and drive-in operas and Covid-secure theatre events are already taking place, though sport continues to struggle. As for charity, will the ‘blitz spirit’ continue or peter out? As more people report mental health issues and financial hurdles to overcome, will they feel they should be on the receiving end of charity rather than offering it to others?

Time will tell. Until then, perhaps we need to find the upsides. At a personal level a propensity to save rather than spend may mean we are in a better position to deal with enforced reduction in income should such a crisis strike again. And perhaps weathering this era will increase our resilience and take more risks in the long term, knowing we can deal with them. While you might still be hunkering down with your favourite comfort viewing and a bowl of ice cream, you can guarantee that there’s always someone crying ‘carpe diem’ and jumping out of an aeroplane…