Elizabeth, 38, has been thinking about only one thing since last spring: moving her family to Portugal. But, neither she nor her husband, who she says is onboard with the idea, have ever been to Portugal, nor do they speak the language or know a single soul there. Yet, the two TV writers in L.A. have soured on the competitive nature and long hours of their unpredictable freelance jobs and have begun to imagine, as she puts it, “what else our lives could be.” Plus, their two-year-old daughter has barely seen another child this year; just one reason it seems like high time to look for a lifeline.
While Elizabeth had thought about moving abroad ever since the pandemic started, her interest in moving to Portugal, specifically, began when a friend bought a place in the city of Porto and raved about the wonderful food, climate, and cost of living. Elizabeth soon learned that the visa-application process is relatively straightforward for Portugal, and after five years of living there part-time, you could apply to become an EU citizen. She was sold, and began researching the possibility in-depth; at first, she spent about three hours a day on this activity, although now it’s more like an hour.
“I am DEEP on every real estate site,” Elizabeth told Refinery29. “I have researched all the regions. I know the visa options. Would you like to know the exact limits to remodeling an apartment in Lisbon? Would you like to know which regions qualify for a Golden Visa? Are you curious about affordable pod homes you can put on ancient vineyards?! I have spent hours doing this research.”
Will Elizabeth and her family ever actually relocate to Portugal? Truth be told, she says, she is not 100% sure, but if it does happen it won’t be for another several years. She has, however, also begun to make concrete steps toward making the dream a reality, starting a grad program in marriage and family therapy, both because the new career could let her work remotely from anywhere and so that she is able to leave L.A. and the TV-writing world.
Elizabeth is one of many people who has developed a pandemic “hobby” that is at once extremely engrossing, all-consumingly detail-oriented, and involves planning for an eventual post-pandemic future. For many, it can’t exactly be called “planning,” though — it’s more like “optimistically mapping out” or even just “active daydreaming,” considering the uncertainty that the future will pan out exactly the way they want it to. I’ve talked to dozens of people who fit into this pattern: They put together in-depth travel guides to places they may not be able to visit for a long time, they spend hours picking out outfits (without actually buying them) for far-off special occasions, they make elaborate dream-house Pinterest boards even as they rent for the foreseeable future. I, too, frequently engage in similar activities: My honeymoon was supposed to be in April 2020, and everything was planned out. Now it’s, let’s just say, a lot more planned out. This type of behavior can best be described as “pandemic window-shopping” — it’s somewhat like real window-shopping except we’re all on our phones or computers 24/7 and retail is dead, so we use Pinterest, save things to Instagram, and build spreadsheets.
It’s logical that so many of us are engaging in these activities, experts say. “The pandemic has obviously been really traumatic and era-defining,” Vinita Mehta, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., told Refinery29. “I think that one way to understand it and cope with the trauma is by staying future-oriented. Very often, when people are going through something extremely difficult or distressing, they handle it by focusing on the future. All of these activities, it all sounds to me like ways to think about what one’s future could look like.”
On top of that, future-oriented activities that employ our imagination can actually be good for us and boost our mental health. Given that we’re in a national mental health crisis, this is no small thing. “This fantasy-like behavior can be quite therapeutic and serve a variety of adaptive and satisfying functions,” Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City, told Refinery29. “One of the many purposes that fantasies and daydreaming can serve is they simulate emotional experiences that we yearn for. In the exercise of ‘imagining,’ we can glean some of the satisfaction of the actual experience.”
"One of the many purposes that fantasies and daydreaming can serve is they simulate emotional experiences that we yearn for. In the exercise of 'imagining,' we can glean some of the satisfaction of the actual experience."
Dr. dana dorfman, psychotherapist
This is the case for Natalie Held, 21, in Connecticut, who has been meticulously curating Pinterest boards with names like “pink Harry Styles aesthetic” where she pins inspiration for her future life in London and interior design for a future apartment. The London board helps her look forward to hopefully living there with one of her best friends next spring, “if all goes well.” It’s full of places they want to visit together, cute cafés, and pastel-pink doors.
“This all drastically improves my mental health,” Held told Refinery29. “It not only gives me things and places to look forward to, but goals that I can work towards. My friend and I frequently send each other posts from Instagram and TikTok with inspiration for our future flat and fun adventures we can go on. If I didn’t have these little pockets of reprieve, I know I’d be in a lot worse shape.”
A lot of people I’ve talked to echoed Held in saying that their pandemic window-shopping helps them feel better day-to-day and gives them something to look forward to. Martine Elyse Philippe, a dance educator in Atlanta, says she has online shopping carts full of outfits on several sites with no intention of buying (at least not most of them) thanks to her pandemic-impacted budget. “I have outfits planned for future trips and vacations, weddings, baby and bridal showers, in-person work, concerts, birthday parties, happy hour with my girlfriends, and more,” she explained. “Thinking about and shopping for future events brings me a sense of hopeful anticipation.” Meagan Fredette, 35, a writer in Brooklyn, has a “secret Pinterest board for clothes/etc. to buy when the stimmy arrives.” (That would be the long-awaited $1,400 COVID-19 relief stimulus checks from the government.) Meghan*, 36, in Boston, has spent the pandemic planning a trip to Japan in such depth that she says she could write her own travel guide. Her wedding and honeymoon had both been planned for April 2020 and had to be postponed more than once since. “It’s self-soothing for sure,” she said. “Creating these spreadsheets makes the planner part of me feel better since everything has gone to shit. It’s more elaborate than previous trips to start because it’s for our honeymoon and I wanted it to be perfectly done. It started out as wedding-planning levels of detail, but has morphed into something more intense as I’ve built up more and more vacation time and credit card points.”
Dr. Dorfman says this type of detailed planning can also be beneficial because it can help mitigate “impulse-buying” and the subsequent regret that comes with it. It can also help to take the feelings of inertia, ineffectiveness, and lack of productivity some are experiencing during the pandemic and sublimate them into forward-thinking tasks. For Julie Bogen, 29, an editor in Bethesda, MD, this means checking three different real estate apps multiple times a day, in hopes of finding the right house to buy with her husband — even while they theoretically have another year to do so until their apartment lease runs out. “I'm rolling over in the middle of the night and checking my phone to see if things have come on the market,” she told Refinery29. “It’s been a way to channel all of this pent-up energy that I would otherwise be putting towards things like researching restaurants to go to, or planning vacations.”
Others don’t have such realistic plans of turning their window-shopping activities into reality. Suzanne Frush, 28, a product manager in Astoria, Queens, has been hard at work on something she calls “Zillow HGTV.” This involves finding fixer-uppers to “buy” on Zillow in upstate New York cities like Albany and Poughkeepsie that are far more affordable than New York City and have plenty of beautiful old houses, and planning out exactly what renovation projects she would do — complete with fake-but-plausible contractor estimates — using Pinterest for inspiration and Excel spreadsheets for budget planning. Frush lives in a rental apartment and doesn’t have enough saved for a down payment, but she says the activity has helped her use her dormant planning skills. “I’m an extroverted planner, and not being able to plan anything — travel, seeing people, work — has been really hard for me,” she said.
And then, there are others who are procrastinating on acting on their window-shopping plans because, well, we’re in a pandemic. Sansa*, 25, in Washington, D.C., moved into her own studio apartment in May 2020 and has been researching potential couches to buy ever since. She keeps a spreadsheet of her options, complete with a list of pros and cons based on reviews from Reddit and real life. “But I have yet to buy a couch,” she said. “Because no one is coming over.” She added, “It’s fun to think about my mom visiting me and my friends coming over.” For now, however, her bed seems like enough — and, she reasons, why spend money on a couch if she’s moving away to go to law school in a couple of years anyway?
Dr. Mehta says that pandemic window-shopping reminds her of how children play and use their imaginations. “You will see this a lot when you’re doing play therapy with children,” she explained. “They will express what the things are that are making them anxious. And then, they’ll play out the things they want and the things they’re thinking about in their lives. It occurred to me that what adults are doing when they ‘window-shop’ is the same as how kids try to get a handle on their anxiety.” It’s possible to imagine that because our everyday activities have become so restricted, we have reverted to our inner child and gone back to building sandcastles.
While most people window-shop in a way that is therapeutic for them, Dr. Dorfman notes that repetitively engaging in these types of activities could become unhealthy if it becomes a substitute for relationships or work and family obligations. (There are exceptions, though, like with Held, who shares her London dreams with her friend.) “If you’re consistently unable to tolerate or manage certain feelings and use these activities as the sole expression or as a way to avoid feeling negative feelings, the activity may be unhealthy or problematic,” Dr. Dorfman advised, particularly if it interferes with daily functioning like eating and sleeping.
Dr. Mehta says that while it’s normal to attempt to cope with the all-encompassing trauma of the pandemic by focusing on your future, if you find yourself becoming “so future-oriented that you’re having a hard time focusing on the present,” it might be time to take a step back. Mary K. Alvord, PhD, a psychologist in Maryland and co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens, agrees and adds that overdoing the window-shopping could also interfere with our social lives, which have already been greatly affected during this period. “You want balance,” Dr. Alvord said. “So you can do that maybe for a few hours, but you need to get out and ideally have a variety of topics to talk to people about. You need to have contact with others.”
Adequate and satisfying human contact is something that has been sorely missing from many of our lives, and something many people brought up during our conversations. Because while the often solitary nature of pandemic window-shopping can be soothing and therapeutic, as well as help us envision and be optimistic about our futures, it doesn’t replace an experience that is also key to our happiness: engaging and doing activities with other people. For Sansa, hanging out with family and friends was the drive for planning to buy a couch — and the inability to safely invite them over was a main reason for not buying one. A happy update occurred, however, as I was wrapping up this story: “My friends’ parents are giving away a couch, so I’m picking it up tomorrow,” she said. Here’s hoping she’ll be able to invite someone over very soon.
*name has been changed for anonymity