Every summer comes with its own subtle pressure for this one to be the best one ever, but the difference is that this time around, it actually might be. Life, right now, feels like one big “it’s over for you hoes” meme, where the inciting incident is being vaccinated and experiencing sunshine. It reminds me of a 30 Rock scene I think about a lot where Liz Lemon, armed with two enormous bagfuls of plastic organizing doodads, declares with crazed confidence, “I’m going to become wonderful.”
President Biden has promised that every American adult will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine by May. Summer has already proven to be safer during the pandemic than winter due to the switch to outdoor activities, and “in most of the U.S., the summer could feel … ‘normal,’” according to an Atlantic story so optimistic I almost cried reading it. After a year of quarantine, it’s finally starting to feel like there’s an end in sight, and that end also happens to align with the season most easily romanticized in the cultural imagination: summer.
For some of us, that also comes with inventing elaborate fantasies of who our post-pandemic selves are going to be. Friends and coworkers have dreamed up completely new vaccinated identities, such as “hat wearer” and “lady who makes her own salad dressing,” and others are putting their frenzied end-of-quarantine energy into vacation planning, plastic surgery, or getting ripped. Said one personal trainer in Maryland whose virtual class attendance has doubled since early February, “People are legit getting ready for the end.” For me, it’s buying clothes from a certain unnamed and definitely unethical fast fashion brand where crop tops and minidresses cost about $7 apiece, because the current main joy in my life is purchasing things online and waiting for them to arrive.
Most of all, however, folks are excited to feel the presence of other humans, and possibly even kiss them! When the New York Times asked people what they were most looking forward to, many responded that all they wanted was to be a body in an anonymous sweaty crowd while someone makes them a fancy cocktail. We’ve built up such excitement for a potentially horny summer that Tinder is giving away free Covid-19 tests to encourage people to date IRL and Megan Thee Stallion has promised to release a follow-up to 2019’s iconic “Hot Girl Summer.”
“Losing my debit card in a bar is so close I can taste it,” read one viral tweet from earlier this month. In the UK, where the British government has placed a firm date on the end of lockdown, a Twitter account has popped up to track precisely how many days are left until June 21. Jack Kemp, an 18-year-old Newcastle University student from Devon, says he started the account (tagline: “NOT LONG UNTIL FREEDOM LADS”) for fun and as a way to reflect the increasingly optimistic mood of the British public. On June 21, he says, “My plan is simple. Go to the pub in the morning, end up in the club at night.”
Is it possible that all this daydreaming could, as a reasonably anxiety-prone person might believe, actually backfire? Could we build up such towering expectations that reality can’t possibly achieve and thus end up disappointed? According to science, not really! Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the chief scientist at Happy Money, says, “I always argue that anticipation is a free source of pleasure that we don’t make as much of as we could. And one of the great things about anticipation is that it doesn’t matter how things actually turn out, you can just enjoy the perfect version of it beforehand.”
One of my colleagues — correctly, I think — likened this idea to the joy of having a crush: It feels good, even if it never becomes anything more. Even if summer isn’t the glorious bacchanalia we may desperately want it to be, Dunn says that this inherent disappointment isn’t likely to devastate us. The gap between our expectations and reality, she says, would have to be a “pretty giant chasm” to create that kind of contrast. “All that time you spent anticipating actually increases your pleasure, partly because you’re attuned to notice the positive things, and the perfection that you imagine will actually rub off, to some extent, on the imperfect experience you actually have.”
That’s because humans tend to underestimate their own capacities to adapt. “One of the most well-demonstrated central pillars of happiness research is this idea of hedonic adaptation, which is that we basically get used to whatever life throws at us,” she says. “I actually think that this has been incredibly valuable to people during the pandemic, because we’ve been capable of adjusting to real suckiness in a way that we would not have necessarily anticipated.” Unfortunately, however, the reverse is also true: Big, happy life events, like marriages, may make people happy, but it isn’t permanent.
So what does this mean for a post-vaxxed, herd-immunized life? Dunn suggests that in order to maximize the joy we’ll feel after lockdown, start small. Instead of planning a massive international vacation (if and when that’s even allowed), maybe schedule a weekend with the people you’ve missed most.
The thing about that 30 Rock scene is that Liz Lemon does not ultimately become wonderful. Instead, in the middle of her declaration that she’s onto a new beginning, “like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” she gets hit by a cyclist. “Or, maybe this is going to be the worst day ever,” she says, lying face-up on the concrete.
It’s of course possible that we’ll share the same fate, that a whole bunch of new strains of coronavirus will wreak havoc on the world and we’ll once again have to get used to the daily despair we’ve lived with for the past year. But that anxiety shouldn’t preclude us from anticipating the possibly lovely warmer months. “This summer is going to be a honeymoon, I think, and people are going to be really appreciative of their social interactions. I don’t think that’s a fantasy,” Dunn says. “The fantasy is that it might last.”
Might as well be wonderful — or at least aspire to be — while we can.