If memory holds, mid-May in our family is usually a time of great busyness. This is when the end of the school year combines with recitals, programs and field days to make weeks pass like hours.
That was back in the old world. Here in this new world, our May looks a lot like April, which looked a lot like March, and could very well look a lot like June: the slow life.
It’s been glorious, mostly. Working from home brings its own challenges, but after the work is done, I love having no plans for 45 evenings in a row. As long as the sun shines during the daytime hours to lure us outdoors, we’re doing just fine. I love watching the neighborhood kids ride their bikes for hours on end. I love seeing our little section of streets come alive with families strolling, waving, front-porch sitting because there’s nowhere better to be. I love the way the leaves on each tree change color according to the blueness of the sky and the slant of the sun. This is the life for me.
But I’ve also been harboring a twinge of nervousness for the stretch of unknown summer before us. Summer break after a busy spring is a welcome relief. But what is summer break after two months of spring break?
Nobody knows, and that’s the rub. I want to know upfront how the coming season is going to unfold — with child care options, summer school plans, vacation possibilities, extracurricular enrollments and so on. After this spring’s strange upheavals, my discomfort lies in the not knowing.
Will the kids’ reading levels decline or their math skills falter? Will they have gone so long without being in a classroom that, by the end of summer, they’ll turn into slugs who’ve forgotten all their hard-won social skills? And when it gets hot outside and the public pools are closed, what then?
Alternately, what if the country comes back to life, and we’re suddenly thrust into our old habits? How will we adapt to the old busyness after such quiet slowness? Will we even want to? And most importantly, the underlying basis for all of these questions: How will these unknown factors affect our overall happiness?
One of my new favorite podcasts, “The Happiness Lab,” got me thinking about my expectations for this summer. In Season 1, Episode 2 — “The Unhappy Millionaire” — podcast creator and researcher Dr. Laurie Santos talked with Dr. Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard.
In the episode, Gilbert discussed a concept called hedonic adaptation, an academic phrase that seems to mean, “You’ll feel better again.” (Which is a key phrase in a “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” song that’s stuck in my brain so deeply I may never be free of it.) Technically, though, hedonic adaptation is defined as a human tendency to return to a base level of happiness even after major life events both positive and negative. Simply put, we don’t usually maintain intense feelings as long as we expect to. When pondering what it would be like to lose our job, be evicted, get a chronic diagnosis, file for divorce — anything really life changing — we tend to overestimate how bad we’ll feel and for how long.
Which can lead to hearty doses of avoidance in some cases or the pressure to be perfect in others.
The episode had plenty more takeaways other than this. But because the approaching summer has had me tied up in knots, here’s what I’m choosing to focus on for now: We may have some rough spots this summer after so many months away from normalcy. But I’m almost certainly giving those supposed rough spots too much power over my thoughts today. And while the past two months’ changes haven’t been easy for our family, we seem to have returned to a base level of happiness together for the time being. This proves Gilbert’s lesson, at least anecdotally, and gives me hope that an unknown summer will not automatically spell doom and gloom.
I can be certain that our summer — and our lives and our world, if you want to get very meta — will contain events both positive and negative. Even if we’d planned one particular type of season, it, too, would contain events both positive and negative. The plans don’t negate the unexpected, and because of hedonic adaptation, we’ll probably feel mostly fine about whatever circumstances are thrown our way. We might struggle momentarily or grieve or worry or stress. But in the end, like water seeking its own level, we’ll center down again into a feeling of normalcy — or acceptance.
We’re more versatile and adaptable than we think.
Gilbert also told Santos that while we overestimate how bad we’ll feel after a negative event, we’re just as likely to overestimate how good we’ll feel following a positive event. We humans, he said, are just pretty terrible predictors of our own joy.
If I can’t be trusted to reliably gauge how much joy I’ll feel at any point in time, I might as well calm down, knowing both my family and myself can weather whatever this summer might hold. We aren’t fragile. We’re bendable, and we can come back to center when the winds die down.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.