Remember all that talk of "freedom day" back in the UK summer? The idea was that we would unshackle ourselves from the chains of lockdown to party like it was 2019, go to every theatre opening and never again turn down an invitation.
The reality has been very different. In the UK, where lockdown restrictions lifted a few months ago, data shows that people are making plans to go out but cancelling or not showing up at the last minute. Restaurant group Gusto Italian recorded 1,000 no-shows across its 12 restaurants last week. Even in prepaid music and sporting events, one in seven ticket holders isn't bothering to turn up.
This inertia is being dubbed HOGO – the Hassle Of Going Out – replacing FOMO - the Fear Of Missing Out - in this strange purgatory of not-quite-Covid times.
We've spent so long at home over the last two years that we've become almost institutionalised, unable to venture away from our Netflix and takeaways, unsure of how to embrace outside the bubble. Where once a stuffed diary was a cultural cachet, now, being constantly out and about is more likely to see you accused of being a super-spreader; in is, well, in.
Working from home has killed the after-work drink, while our uniform of elasticated sweatpants and slippers means that we're no longer sure how to dress. Anna is one of my most gregarious friends with a killer wardrobe but even she now finds it hard to get off the sofa. "I don't know if I even fit into my lovely old clothes anymore and I don't dare find out,' she confesses. "I feel like my make-up must have gone off through lack of use and what's the point anyway as I'll have to wear a mask on public transport and it all gets mussed up."
Always having to book in advance when the TV is readily accessible adds another layer of complication. Why go to the cinema when the film is simultaneously released on Amazon Prime and all the biggest releases are on streaming services anyway? Forget blockbusters; it's small screen fare that commands conversation and provides a permanent excuse to stay in.
I was invited to three 50th birthday parties a few months ago, which I excitedly put in my diary and even idly planned some outfits. In the end, I didn't attend any of them – one was cancelled by the fearful host, another was kiboshed by my daughter's positive lateral flow test and the third I felt I couldn't go to because of a streaming cold that would never have stopped me in the old days.
Socialising is a muscle that needs a work-out and, much like our real muscles, it's gone wobbly. But is it laziness, or something deeper, that is preventing us from going out?
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair argues that it's not hassle, but fear that is keeping us at home. "Cortisol is the hormone that shoots up when we are alerted to danger and nobody has previously had to live with cortisol levels as high as we've had since March 2020."
Normally, she argues, we would find the danger and neutralise it, meaning our cortisol levels would subside. Instead the continual hokey-cokey of on-off lockdowns meant we've had months of uncertainty and never regained our equilibrium. If the message from those in power is that the world is full of danger and that other people are petri dishes of a terrifying disease, it's hard to switch off those defence mechanisms.
"So when we're offered something desirable that involves organising the diary or finding a babysitter," she says, "it feels like a threat and confuses us."
The fact that people are going to the effort of planning nights out, even if they are failing to turn up, suggests that she's right in saying that we're fighting an internal battle between a natural desire to be with other people and a need to hunker down and shelter in place.
My lawyer husband has a job that has long involved socialising as well as a personal motto of "always go out". He sees a gradual return to professional mixing but wonders whether a gulf will emerge between firms with differing attitudes – a twin track akin to the paths of those who work from home and those who return to the office. "Some companies will continue with business development and hosting, others won't. And it may well be that the former become much more successful."
There is one group that is going out: those looking for love. Ella is in her 30s and broke up with her live-in partner the Christmas before lockdown. "I'm out almost every night. I've two years of lost fertility as well as fun to catch up on."
My 17-year-old son is similarly keen to make up for lost time – though the fact Covid has run rampant through his cohort over the last six months would suggest that the rest of us are right to be cautious.
There is never an excuse for failing to cancel a restaurant reservation or wasting money on unused theatre tickets, but we need to be kinder to ourselves. In some ways, ending the cult of busyness is a good thing. My once most social friend has cut down events to once or twice a week and is opting for quality over quantity: "I've realised that I'd rather have two people over for dinner than a dozen so I've really thought about who I most want to see."
Blair agrees that it's natural to have reassessed where we put our energies, given that human interaction takes so much effort especially when already exhausted by the ebbing away of that initial euphoria and siege mentality that we felt in the early days of lockdown. "We should still go back to socialising because it is so beneficial for human life," she says. "But take it slow, be nice to yourself and recognise that everybody is feeling it."