American happiness had been eroding for years. Then the coronavirus happened. Americans are now less happy than they’ve ever been.
It makes sense. The main pillars of happiness — social connections, physical health, income and employment — have all been threatened by the virus and by the actions taken to control its spread. Before that, erosion of trust in public institutions, weaker social connections, declining generosity and growing inequality were all playing their part. While the U.S. ranked 11th among 156 countries in the 2012 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network using data from the Gallup World Poll, it had fallen to 18th before the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, a new survey looking at happiness post-coronavirus shows that Americans have never been in more despair. According to the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 14 percent of American adults are very happy, a huge drop from the 31 percent who were just two years ago.
Amid this troubling downturn is an even more troubling downturn: Like the income gap, the happiness gap has been growing between those at the top and those at the bottom. Prior to COVID-19, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows U.S. personal income inequality to have been among the highest of all the major industrial countries and the fastest-growing. The 2016 World Happiness Report showed U.S. happiness inequality, a more encompassing measure of inequality, to also be among the highest and fast-growing among the industrial countries, and the 2020 World Happiness Report shows that greater inequality of happiness tends to reduce average national happiness.
Add the coronavirus to that, and it’s no surprise well-being inequality has worsened. U.S. data in a 29-country survey carried out in March through May of this year by Imperial College London and YouGov shows that life satisfaction inequality has grown during the pandemic. While average life satisfaction dropped by 0.6 points on the 0-to-11 scale, compared to earlier data from the Gallup World Poll, the drop was greater for those with middle and low incomes. By way of illustration, the share of respondents with life evaluations below 5 out of 10 doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent after the pandemic began.
But while the picture is bleak right now, there is reason to hope that happiness could begin to return to Americans — and ironically, some of that could be because of what has happened in response to COVID-19 and physical distancing. The pandemic has provided some new avenues for happiness that could continue after the virus is gone and prove beneficial to those up and down the socioeconomic ladder. As they say, money can’t buy happiness, which means the keys to improving emotional health and well-being aren’t solely dependent on wealth and resources.
Much of human life that a century ago used to be done outside the formal economy has since become commercialized, leading to a correlated growth in gross domestic product. But during the current timeout for the commercial economy, people are rediscovering the skills and joys of working and playing at home. This massive shift to home production, and the embrace of simple pleasures such as baking and family games, have helped to slightly redress the imbalance between rich and poor people — although, of course, people with no home and shattered job prospects struggle even to engage in these recreations.
As for social closeness, a basic source for human health and happiness, it is surviving physical distancing with the aid of communications technologies whose power and prevalence were scarcely imagined 50 years ago. The “social” aspect of social media has finally been fully realized. Their power to make adolescents anxious, to fuel envy, to misallocate fame and to distort elections has already been demonstrated. But they are now being used for better purposes, to build and maintain social closeness in the absence of physical closeness.
People have been reaching out to friends, family and beyond to make contact, provide assurance, offer help and share reminiscences and laughter. While some material resources are needed for these forms of communication, they are still much more cost-effective than airplanes and hotels and even dining out — all of which can make socializing, particularly at a distance, out of reach in normal circumstances for people with limited means.
To achieve better future results for both health and happiness, there is emerging evidence that shared social norms and the willingness to elevate the interests of others are much more effective than are stringently enforced lockdowns. The experience of the coronavirus has allowed us to focus on others’ well-being and experience community solidarity, even if on an individual level that involves discomfort and hardship.
These are important attributes to embrace because there is evidence that willingness to trust the experts and to react earlier rather than later have been the secret sauce in dealing with this fast-moving, stealthy virus. Both of these features characterize the responses and experiences of Iceland and New Zealand, countries that feature high levels of happiness and trust. These are fundamental assets to be cherished for the next crisis, whether it should be another virus, climate change or the need to redress deeply rooted inequalities.
Where trust is low, it needs to be rebuilt by avoiding the tendency to blame others and by reaching out a friendly hand to others with different appearances and circumstances, even where this takes courage. For some, the pandemic has provided such courage.