Another Covid Winter, but Our Quarantine Comforts No Longer Work
Scott Haas has had enough of the four houseplants he bought in 2020 as his version of the pandemic puppy — living things that he could nurture through his isolation. But that was back when he thought the pandemic had an end date and he wanted to make his home office feel homier. Now, Mr. Haas, the author of “Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance,” can barely look at the plants.
He’s not even sure of the variety — palms, maybe? But they stare back at him in his home in Cambridge, Mass., even as he tries to ignore these wilting reminders that he’s still inside, with little to do besides water these charges.
At first, the greenery “helped a lot,” Mr. Haas said. “But now I’m thinking, are you kidding me? This is it? I feel like my cell is being decorated. I feel like we’re all living in these well-decorated cells.”
As the world faces down another pandemic wave, this one fueled by a voracious Omicron variant that undid holiday plans with impressive speed and precision, the nesting tools that got many of us through earlier waves can feel trite. Americans may not be heading for another round of lockdowns, but many of them are certainly piling up the cancellations — for parties, travel and events. Once again, our living rooms are beckoning, reminding us that they’ve been here the whole time, patiently awaiting our return.
By now, we know the drill: After waiting in the Covid testing line, we come home and dutifully set up another tedious game of Catan while chili simmers in the Instant Pot, because what else is there to do until the P.C.R. test results roll in?
Americans have spared little expense over the past two years turning their homes into cozy havens, ambitiously redesigning their spaces in an effort to weather a pandemic in comfort. But at some point, even the fluffiest throw pillows start to feel suffocating. And let’s face it: How much bread can you really bake in that renovated kitchen anyway? Do you even like sourdough all that much?
Our homes, and the refuge they’ve become, have worn out their welcome. And yet, here they are, waiting patiently for another Covid winter.
“We’ve reached the end of what we can do to make ourselves feel better,” said Olga Mecking, the author of “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.” “We’ve been mindful, we meditated, we went for walks, we baked bread. We kept our distance, we wore masks, we got vaccinated for the first, second, third time. And it helped to some extent, but I also think it shows the limits of these individualistic wellness trends.”
At some point, we run out of distractions and recipes, and we’re left with a cycle of viral surges that is as stressful as it is tedious.
“Everyone was so determined to get back to normal that they made plans that never happened,” said Ms. Mecking, speaking from her home in the Netherlands, which had just enacted another lockdown to curb rising Covid cases. “It gave people lots of false hope.”
She plans to use the unexpectedly quiet holiday break to do what she does best: nothing. In embracing the niksen philosophy, Ms. Mecking, who is Polish, feels no pressure to level up, despite cultural and social expectations to look busy. “You don’t have to make sourdough bread,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything, really.”
You can just stare at the walls and exist.
Meik Wiking, the chief executive of the Happiness Research Institute, a Copenhagen-based think tank that explores why some societies are happier than others, didn’t seem especially happy the day we spoke over Zoom. His friend, who lives in New York, had recently canceled a holiday trip to Denmark after the country enacted new restrictions. “It’s an annual tradition that we have to shut down the happiness we save for Christmas,” he said.
The Danes, of course, know all about long, dark, lonely winters, and have developed endless coping mechanisms to survive them. Near the top of the list is hygge, a Danish word that sort of rhymes with fugue and is a deeply rooted Scandinavian philosophy of coziness that relies on candles, wool blankets and soup. Mr. Wiking, the author of “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well,” suggested we look to hygge as a way to respond to the changing conditions around us. We might not be able to control the virus, but we can control dinner.
“The rug did get pulled out from under us, but we’ve done this before, we can do it again,” he said. “Yes, things kind of suck, to put it in scientific terms, but there is still happiness to be had over Christmas and the holidays. We’ll still be able to cook some wonderful, lovely meals.”
A Happiness Institute report on well-being during Covid found that people who crafted or took up D.I.Y. projects reported being happier during the pandemic. But enthusiasm for those activities waned after a few months because, well, how long can we knit with gusto? But the one activity that had the biggest impact on our happiness — getting outside for 15 minutes a day — got more popular as the months wore on. Getting away from the house turned out to be a good thing.
Christiana Coop, an owner of Hygge & West, a boutique wallpaper and home-goods company in Minneapolis, is done taking on big house projects, or buying anything else to spruce up her space. For this wave, she’s hunkering down with the stuff she already has. “I really don’t think it’s about buying a sheepskin rug,” said Ms. Coop, who lives in Sonoma County, Calif. “It’s about using it and appreciating what you already have.”
That bubble bath that’s been sitting on the bathroom shelf for months? It’s still waiting for you. Or that bottle of champagne that you planned to pop with friends to ring in the New Year, back when you thought you had plans? Well, there’s no time like the present to indulge at home.