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Has the coronavirus killed our spontaneity — or just reigned in our impulsivity?

Yes, we have to think through last-minute events slightly more. That's actually a sign of psychological health, even if it feels off-putting at first.
Still life of a face mask and protective gloves hanging at a coat hook
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The group text read: “Let’s barbecue on my back porch tonight.”

It was a simple message, but full of meaning: An end to the worst of the COVID-19 lockdown, a return to life as we once knew it, a hope that we might indeed be able to enjoy this summer after all.

But then the planning began. “Do you want to bring your own chairs?” “What about food? Should we just each provide our own?” Back and forth we all went, addressing in detail how we would manage spacing, eating, using the toilet.

So much for spontaneity.

Spontaneity has been just one more thing we’ve seemingly lost amid the coronavirus pandemic. On first glance, the loss of our ability to do something on the spur of the moment might seem to be a minor inconvenience — and, of course, it is a small thing compared to the overwhelming loss of life, health, loved ones, income, homes, security and, generally, life as we knew it. But psychotherapists have long been aware that spontaneity is a necessary building block for what psychologists call “optimal mental functioning.”

It’s a building block that’s hard to come by these days. Even as we move back out into the world, many of us will not go out without a fair amount of planning. Worrying about where we’ll sit and how we’ll deal with the bathrooms — as well as remembering to have gloves, masks and sanitizers for every outing — is stressful and far from the impromptu visit to the park that we may have planned in the past. (Although much gratitude is due to those administrators like the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department who put time and effort into planning and drawing social distancing circles on the grass of some parks!)

The loss of this aspect of their life may be hardest on adolescents and emerging adults, whose entire social life is, and probably should be, mostly impromptu. Lauren Fadiman, an undergraduate student, wrote in Harvard Magazine that, among other changes, she mourned what she called “the loss of spontaneity that is so inherently a part of life at college — that is, in fact, one of its few constants.”

She’s not wrong to do so. The high school and college years are a time for important social, psychological, mental and emotional growth, and, as many people know, scientists say the part of the brain that involves rational thinking and good judgment does not fully develop until the age of 25. The late teens and early 20s are precisely when people develop the ability to think for themselves and to operate separately even within groups — skills that help them shift from unthinking and potentially dangerous impulsive behavior to more thoughtful spontaneous action.

Thus, the inability to engage in impromptu gatherings eliminates one of the important learning experiences that helps adolescents and young adults develop this part of their brain.

Of course, as with much of COVID-19, the ability to be spontaneous is partially predicated on social, class and economic status. Missing the bus back home is a far more serious problem for someone who doesn’t have the money for an Uber than it is for someone who does, for instance. Taking an impromptu job offer, despite possible health dangers, is harder to resist when one otherwise has little money for food and shelter. And when you have no home in which to shelter, the concept of spontaneously breaking quarantine is meaningless.

Beyond that, as George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis painfully reminds us, people of color rarely had the luxury of full spontaneity since long before COVID-19, and young African Americans have frequently been deprived of the ability to grow into thoughtful spontaneity. During the pandemic, as Derrick Bryson Taylor wrote in the New York Times, with the coronavirus “infecting and killing African Americans at disproportionately high rates, black men find themselves facing two concerns: the virus and those who see their covered faces as threatening” — forcing them to question for which outcome they ought to even plan.

And, when President Barack Obama famously said Trayvon Martin, a black teen killed in a white neighborhood in 2012, “could have been my son,” he was referencing the painful reality that parents of color have to teach their children at very young ages that spontaneous behavior outside their community can be dangerous.

These examples all highlight how important spontaneity is, in unspoken ways, to our broader culture, and how some of us took the ability to be spontaneous for granted — which is why the loss of it for those people now feels so stark.

But the answer to the lack of spontaneity caused by the measures instituted to protect us from COVID-19 is not therefore to simply throw caution to the wind and socialize — or allow our teens to socialize — in unprotected and potentially dangerous ways. Such behavior is impulsive and reactive, rather than spontaneous.

Leon Seltzer, a clinical psychologist and author, wrote for Psychology Today that spontaneous behavior is mediated by thought and rationality, while impulsive behavior “bypasses — or may even ‘hijack’ — our more rational faculties” and therefore can expose us to danger, putting our own and others’ welfare at risk.

In other words, though it might feel strange (and particularly strange to those used to relying solely on impulsivity), some planning is actually key to spontaneity.

For those who are, by nature, planners, this will certainly make good sense. For parents whose children (adult or otherwise) seem to view all attempts at scheduling as anathema, such a shift will feel like a tremendous relief. But to anyone chafing to be free to do as they wish without following any COVID-19 protective measures, the need to maintain some caution (or do some planning) will feel painfully restrictive.

And the fact that almost everyone is feeling the need to break free of restrictions and engage in impulsive behavior under the guise of spontaneity may be one of the driving forces behind some of the demands to open up restrictions before many epidemiologists believe it is actually safe to do so.

In fact, pure spontaneity (or strict impulsiveness) on its own can be as dangerous as rigid control. Psychoanalyst Irwin Hoffman writes in his book “Ritual and Spontaneity in the Psychoanalytic Process” that, as with most things in life, these two opposites actually provide an important balance to one another. We need a mix of the two to experience true emotional and personal satisfaction. It is impossible to achieve a single static place of equilibrium between spontaneity and planning — and no one needs to operate on pure impulse or schedule everything — but part of healthy psychological development comes from balancing and rebalancing any opposites.

The COVID-19 pandemic, both in lockdown and reopening, has exaggerated the normal, healthy struggle to find a good balance between planning and spontaneous action. Although it may feel like a herculean task, it is still important to find positive, safe and thoughtfully impromptu activities even as the need to plan and organize those impromptu activities becomes heightened. The upside of working toward balance — even without fully achieving it — will be a stronger sense of psychological, emotional and even physical well-being when we do get out from under this pandemic.