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By now it feels like every adjective, superlative, metaphor and cliche that exists has been used to describe the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, at risk of adding to the pile of very overused phrases, we are truly living through “unprecedented times”.
In the last two years, the way we live has changed dramatically. This has presented many challenges, but has also created an opportunity to reflect on our lives, and ask: “What truly brings us fulfilment?” Shifts in how we’ve been able to live and work during these times impacted everyone differently. Some people have changed their lives for the better, using the pandemic as a springboard to achieve new things. At times, it might have felt like the world was ground to a halt, but personal growth, passion projects and career milestones continued too.
Mike Key, 28, is the director of a production management business in London. In November 2019, months before the pandemic hit, his life changed forever when he had a stroke. Suffering a stroke at such a young age made Mike think about his life. “It really opened my eyes to the fact that I just wasn't a very happy person for a long time,” he says. “I think I was numbing a lot of life’s stresses and pains by going out and partying and living a lifestyle that wasn’t healthy for my mind or body.”
On the road to physical and mental recovery, as the pandemic changed the world, Mike started running. In the chaos of 2020, his new hobby would soon become a lifestyle. After running his first half marathon in August, he set himself a challenge for 2021: to run a half marathon every single week. That’s 13.2 miles a week and 686.4 miles over the year. As an incentive, Mike pledged to raise money for Healing Little Hearts – a UK-based charity that provides free heart surgery to babies and children in the developing world.
In December, as temperatures plummeted, Mike completed the last of his fifty-two half-marathons. So how did he do it? “The physical side is what everyone gravitates towards as the difficult part,” he says. “But what’s interesting is that, to be honest, my body got used to it really quickly.” Instead, the hardest thing was the mental side: “Even after completing one run, there was the lingering feeling that the next one was just around the corner. But there was never a run where I stopped and gave up. No matter how difficult some weeks were.”
Mike’s training gave him a sense of structure in a time where routine was in short supply. But most importantly, it was a structure that placed his physical and mental wellbeing at the centre. “I used to often think I didn’t have time to exercise as much as I do now,” he says. “But I found that, when you prioritise exercising and yourself, everything else is much more likely to fall into place.”
After feeling the mental benefits of running himself, Mike founded a running club for men of all ages and abilities. Men are less likely to seek help with their mental health for a variety of reasons, including a lack of support system. So the club is a much-needed space where members can talk freely about their anxieties and feelings, in a supportive environment. Looking back, running has turned the pandemic into a time of transformative change in Mike’s life. “When I think about the person I was just before the pandemic hit, it's just not me anymore at all,” he says. “I think running has really allowed me to realise that there was so much more to life that I just wasn't enjoying. On a fundamental level, I now wake up and feel much happier in myself.”
Mike isn’t alone. In the pandemic, a craving for structure and routine sent people looking for new hobbies and pastimes. Psychologist Ian MacRae, author of several books about the psychology of work and life, including the upcoming Dark Social, thinks a combination of unstructured time and stress prompted people to make big changes in their lives. “Suddenly, a lot more people had a lot more unstructured time than they were used to,” he says. “The physiological and psychological effects of stress can really focus your mind on a particular path and strip away a lot of extraneous factors. Sometimes that can really make people care about new things: they’re looking at their world, their life or their immediate circumstances through a different lens.”
Of course, people choosing to spend their time differently goes beyond baking sourdough or banana bread. We’re now seeing widespread shifts in employment too. The 'great resignation', as it has been dubbed, has seen workers across the world quit their jobs and, in some cases, start entirely new careers. “People have had much more ability to structure their own time, instead of having it structured around family obligations or work obligations or other hobbies,” MacRae says. “When you have to make all those choices for yourself at the beginning of every day, you begin to figure out how you want to spend that time. With fewer options available, you can work out what really matters to you.”
Gregg Boyd, 28, an urban planner from Glasgow, has used the pandemic to pursue a new career passion: food. Since he was a teenager, when he ended up in culinary college for work experience week, Gregg has been fascinated by cooking and flavours. During the pandemic, he decided to stop drinking alcohol after he found the first UK-wide lockdown alcohol-fuelled and unproductive. “What started as a sober summer turned into a sober eight months. And during that time I just felt like I had so much free time, because I wasn't going out and I wasn't spending time hungover or feeling rundown,” he says.
Living in London in the depths of lockdown, with more time than ever to invest in his passion, Gregg began the process of creating Auld Hag – a Scottish food company with a mission to bring haggis to the English capital. This isn’t haggis as we know it, though. The dishes blend flavours from different cuisines, featuring innovative combinations from around the world. Think: spiced haggis with romesco sauce and pimentón, honey turnip purée and “Glasgow-style” salsa verde. From haggis burgers to slow-cooked ragu and, of course, haggis pizza, Auld Hag provides new ways to eat Scotland’s national dish at London’s food pop ups and markets.
The pandemic has, of course, been an immensely challenging time for the hospitality industry. Many venues have closed their doors and struggled to function during various waves of restrictions. While some people would consider 2021 to be too daunting a year to leap into a food business, Gregg thought the opposite: to him, it was actually an opportunity. “With so many businesses sadly disappearing, they were freeing up room in the market for us to come in and do something different,” he says. “We weren't going to directly replace something that is already there. We had a fresh angle that we could really take advantage of, to give people something new for their taste-buds to try.”
Having spent most of the pandemic away from Scotland, where he grew up and most of his family live, working with Scottish food has been a chance for Gregg to reconnect with his roots. Whether it was introducing haggis to new people from all over the world, meeting fellow Scots who live in London, or collaborating with other Scottish food businesses, creating Auld Hag has been a collaborative and social experience.
For anyone who is daunted by the prospect of starting their new business, whether it be the mountain of admin or the fear of the unknown, Gregg has simple advice. “Just go for it. It’s always going to look much harder than it is, when there’s red tape and forms to fill out, But most of those things are easy to sort,” he says. “If the pandemic has taught me anything it’s that you just have to get stuck in and do things, and it’ll be so much more rewarding than just thinking about it in your head.”
MacRae says the pandemic has, for some people, shifted the way we think about ourselves. Part of this is because, in “normal times”, we tend to go through crises on our own. But this time it was collective and shared, which allowed for much more open discussion about how people were coping. Talking online has often been safer and easier than meeting in-person, so new 'communication networks' have formed around certain topics. “The creation of new connections and new communication networks to talk about what we’ve been going through during this time can really shift how people feel about themselves in relation to other people,” he says.
Body image is something lots of people have grappled with at various points in the pandemic, when lockdowns altered what many of us were eating and drinking, and the ways people were allowed to exercise kept changing too. On average, 40% of British people gained at least 3kg during the pandemic, while eating disorders also surged.
Writer Rose Stokes, 34, has been on a journey with how she’s been thinking and talking about her own body during the pandemic. In the last two years, more of her writing has focussed on body image. “I realised that, for some reason, I don't seem to find it hard to talk about these things, and I know that a lot of other people do,” she says. “I do think there's a real lack of nuance in the way we talk about people's bodies, women's bodies in particular. There's a binary of looking at ‘good’ ways to lose weight and put it back on, rather than talking about how we feel about ourselves.”
Rose began thinking about her body differently after losing a considerable amount of weight in 2016, then gaining most of it back in the following years. “When I was at my thinnest, I was desperately miserable, but everyone was really happy for me and it was the most praise I've ever had in my life for one singular achievement,” she says. “ I found the reverse journey of gaining weight but getting happier, really difficult in some ways, because I felt like a happier person.”
The pandemic presented challenges for Rose, who had found a happy medium of exercising regularly and not worrying too much about what she looked like by the time it hit. Suddenly, she felt like she was in survivor mode. “I lost a lot of my coping mechanisms and ended up comfort eating, which I think a lot of people did,” she says. “I decided that, if I gained a bit of weight, then that would have to be OK because it’s easier to cope with than being in a mental health spiral.”
Rose began exploring these issues more deeply in her work and on social media. In April 2020, when the world was locked down and gyms were closed, a story she wrote for Women’s Health, with an accompanying photoshoot, was published. On social media, she was overwhelmed with the response: “Given the loneliness of the pandemic, when we were so aware of our own bodies and insecurities, having so many people reach out to me really did help me,” she says.
As time went on, though, Rose learned that validation from others was not enough to shift her attitude towards herself long-term. Just like many people who’ve struggled to like their own bodies over the years, she missed the feeling of being visually perceived, or even complimented, while working in an office or meeting friends. “The problem with relying on validation is that it's really inconsistent and unpredictable and is often really about the person that's complimenting you. I think people often compliment people about things that they feel insecure about,” she says.
The absence of external validation taught her that she needs to be her own advocate. “It was actually quite a learning curve, in the sense that it made me realise that I should have more appreciation for the fact that my body was healthy enough to get me through the pandemic,” she says. “That has helped become a lot more forgiving of myself and kinder to my body.”
The upheaval of the last two years has motivated so many people to try approaching life differently. But looking to the future, will these changes be lasting? While everyone is different, MacRae says that altering our behaviour – whether it’s exercising, starting a new passion or actively trying to think about things differently – can actually change our brains longer-term.
“Changing behaviour actually restructures the connections in our brain over time, which is how habits form and is the reason why things we do frequently start to feel natural and automatic.” While some parts of life will undoubtedly return to normal one day, the pandemic has and will continue to be a springboard for lasting changes in mind, body and soul.