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A record number of Americans rediscovered the outdoors last year. /Getty Images

Last year, we were all forced to rewrite the script of our daily lives.

Amid business closures and social distancing mandates, we had to adopt new habits and hobbies — and you know what? Some were for the better.

Hand hygiene, for instance.

According to a recent survey conducted by washroom accessory-maker the Bradley Corporation, 90% of Americans say they are handwashing more often amid the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control also reported that more people are remembering to wash their hands now than in 2019.

While we look forward to one day returning to normalcy, let us also appreciate the positive change brought by 2020.

Here are five pandemic-inspired trends that we hope to see continue through the new year.

1. We spent more time outside.

A record number of Americans rediscovered the outdoors last year. A CivicScience poll published in late March 2020 found that 43% of Americans age 13 and older said they planned to spend more time outside due to COVID-19. And it seems many followed through with that plan.

GPS data collected from mobile phones by Google between April and September found that every destination tracked, from retail to offices to restaurants, had a moderate drop with the exception of one: parks.

In many places, that spike led to overcrowding issues. In late March, for example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed all park areas through April after seeing an increase of about 5,000 visitors per day.

Overcrowding issues aside, Americans' newfound fondness for nature provided a much-needed boost to the industry.

According to data from the NPD Group, a nationwide market research company, in June, spending on camping equipment increased by 31%. Spending on paddle sports, which had been in decline before the pandemic, increased by 56%. And bicycle sales increased by 63%.

Even bird-watching soared in popularity.

"I've had this store for 17 years," says Nick Brown, owner of Hixson's Wild Birds Unlimited, "and 2020 was better than any of those."

He says his customers have ranged from veteran birders looking to expand their setups to first-timers interested in hanging feeders outside their new home office windows.

"I think bird-watching is about getting back to basics," he says. "You're serving a purpose, helping feed and maintain populations. It's a release — even if just temporary — from the issues all around us."

 

2. We took better care of our pets.

Last year was a big one for animals, and for animal shelters, too.

While the number of pet adoptions in the U.S. was down compared to 2019, the number of intakes, or pets surrendered to shelters, was also down — by half a million, according to data compiled by the Shelters Animal Count national database.

"The big fear was that shelters would be overwhelmed as people lost their jobs and found themselves unable to care for their animals," says Inga Fricke, executive director of McKamey Animal Center. "But then the opposite happened."

Fricke believes the trend, in part, can be attributed to the lockdowns, which forced Americans to spend more time at home.

"People have had more time to spend with their pets, and I think it's increased their bonds," she says. "They're having a new appreciation for the dogs and cats they spend their lives with."

And in more good news, she adds, "fostering became the thing to do in 2020."

Last year McKamey fostered out almost 1,400 animals, which, Fricke admits, is slightly less than in 2019, but still better than expected.

The nationwide trend, however, surpassed expectations. ASPCA foster programs in cities such as New York City and Los Angeles reported a 70% increase in animals being fostered.

"If you have room in your heart and your home, it's always the right time to foster," Fricke says. "Every day an animal can spend out of the shelter is a good day for that animal."

 

3. We went out of our way to shop local.

No doubt about it, the pandemic changed the way we shop, particularly in regards to food. In March, the USDA reported that for the first time since 2014 Americans spent more at grocery stores than restaurants.

Moreover, since the pandemic began, we have become more intentional about shopping local.

Some reports attribute that trend to consumer fear over potential pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain, which could make imported goods more difficult to find. But Eric Landrum, owner of Chattanooga's Locals Only Gifts and Goods, offering Tennessee-made products ranging from food to art to clothing, believes it is more altruistic.

"I think it's because folks listen to the news and are cognizant that small businesses are more prone to struggle," he says. In late November, on Small Business Saturday, when holiday shoppers are urged to support small businesses across the country, Landrum says Locals Only saw an increase in sales compared to the previous year.

He remembers one woman who spent hundreds of dollars on gifts. She was a first-time visitor to the North Shore shop, and told Landrum she was committed to supporting local businesses for the holiday.

In fact, Landrum says, "I hear that (from customers) about six to seven times a day."

A recent National Retail Federation poll supports his anecdotes. In April, the poll found that half of consumers had made a purchase specifically to support local business amid the pandemic.

"Every dollar, every transaction counts when it comes to supporting small business," Landrum says.

 

4. We drove less and had cleaner air.

In late March, when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a stay-at-home order to help quell the spread of the coronavirus, traffic on state highways dropped by more than half — a trend that was mirrored across the U.S.

By the end of April, across all states, total miles traveled were down 49%, according to data collected by Arity, a subsidiary of Allstate.

As a result, cities nationwide began reporting less air pollution. In November, NASA announced that, since February, global concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant emitted by burning fossil fuels, had dropped by 20%. A BloombergNEF study projected that by the year's end, emissions would fall to their lowest level in at least three decades.

However, traffic has been steadily increasing since May. By early December, it neared pre-pandemic numbers. In Tennessee, by late November, traffic volume was down just 10% compared to the same time in 2019, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

While fewer cars on the road led to cleaner air during the height of the pandemic, experts say that stay-at-home orders are not the way to long-term change. Rather, they say, we should focus on clean energy and find hope in how quickly our actions can bring positive change.

 

5. We developed a greater appreciation for everyday moments.

A pandemic, it turns out, may be the perfect time to practice everyday gratitude. For starters, some studies suggest that grateful people tend to have better health than their less grateful counterparts. Moreover, amid shutdowns and the advent of free time, "There are just more everyday moments to be thankful for," says Lauren Hall, interim president and director of communications for First Things First, a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening marriages and families.

Since March, Hall says her organization has seen an interesting trend among searches on its site. Where people used to ask how to make time for their families, they are now asking how to make the most of their time with their families, she says.

For Hall, making the most has meant savoring the small moments that working from home — alongside her husband and 1-year-old son — has afforded her: putting her toddler down for a nap; waking him up in the morning; working as a team with her husband. It has also meant devoting at least 10 minutes a day to self-care, which can be as simple as listing the things for which you are grateful that day.

After all, healthy relationships — with our partners, our friends and the world around us — begin with a healthy you.

"Retrain your brain to see the best," Hall says.

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