The psychology behind pandemic decision making

'Lifequakes' and other reasons why you might be considering major life changes.

'Lifequakes' and other reasons why you might be considering major life changes

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

On March 16, 2020, Pascale Yensen was celebrating her birthday in Melbourne. She was just a few months into a new life and a new job as a spinning coach in Australia after moving from Toronto in January. "That was the last night that we all went out because the next day they were like 'Okay, this is serious stuff,'" Yensen, 31, said.

A few days later, Yensen was on a flight back home.

Shortly after she got back to Toronto, Yensen broke up with her girlfriend and moved back in with her parents in Ottawa. "My mental health wasn't great," she said. "I need to be busy. I love working, I love having projects, I'm an artist. I need to be doing stuff for people and suddenly it [was] like a full stop. So I had no motivation at all."

For reasons voluntary or not, many people have made major life changes during the coronavirus pandemic. Some have changed jobs or retired. Others have ended or started relationships, gotten pregnant, adopted a dog or moved to the countryside as indicated by a spike in real estate purchases outside major cities

The fear factor

According to Derek J. Koehler, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, the fear that coronavirus can harm or even kill us can not only make us scared of going to the grocery store, it can also influence us to make dramatic changes. "A lot of people have lost family members or personally gotten sick themselves and those kinds of events certainly, anecdotally, [can] be the kinds of things that can trigger people to reassess a little bit," he said.

"The disruption in work and social life has given many of us time to stop and think about our lives, which can leave us asking questions like: 'Am I doing what I want? Am I living the kind of life that, were I sick and dying, would I have any regrets? The kind of bigger picture things we don't do every day but on occasion life does something that makes us kind of pause and take stock," Koehler said. 

"The pandemic might be one of those triggers to sort of pause and consider the direction you want to live and the kind of person you want to be," he added. 


Decisions can be anxiety inducing and come with big consequences, both financially and in our personal relationships. But according to Bruce Feiler, author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, a New York Times bestseller, it's better to get used to life transitions, as they can take up a huge chunk of our adult life.

For his book, Feiler interviewed 225 people in 50 states about their life transitions, and determined that we all go through three to five "lifequakes" — his term for major life changes like a big move, job loss, or diagnosis — that can last about five years each. About half the time, lifequakes can be brought on at random — for Feiler, it was a cancer diagnosis at 43. For the other half, a natural disaster, war, economic crash or pandemic can thrust change upon us. "We are all experiencing this at the same time and that's a very rare thing," he said.

According to Feiler, 61 per cent of us move during our lifequakes. He suggests that moving could be an attempt to take control of your life when you're in a state of flux. "Life gets you stuck and a transition gets you unstuck," he said.

Are we making the right decisions?

While some experts are predicting a permanent rise in remote work, or that travel will never be the same, we just don't know. So what if our predictions are wrong, and we make a bad decision in uncertain times?

"I could imagine the possibility that certain events or feelings that are triggered by the pandemic could lead people to make decisions that are myopic," Koehler said.

Buying a place in the country because your work is remote now, for instance, could be a gamble if your job ends up returning to the office. "Maybe that doesn't happen and now you've bought yourself a big commute," Koehler added.

Yet, Koehler says we should be careful not to think of this pandemic as an insignificant event. If you're holding off a decision until things "go back to normal," you could be waiting a very long time. 

The changes for Yensen didn't end with her move from Australia and back into her parents' home, or with her breakup. She bought a car, picked up a friend in Toronto and together they drove across Canada to Vancouver. "I was on Kitsilano Beach… and I was like, 'Oh my God I think I want to stay here,'" Yensen said. Shortly after, she sent for her things.

Joel Balsam is a Montreal-based freelance journalist with stories in National Geographic, TIME, The Guardian, Lonely Planet and more.

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