Happiness and the COVID Pandemic

The science of happiness can inform our lockdown policies.

Posted May 04, 2020

What has the science of happiness got to do with our current coronapocalypse? Plenty, of course.

It is interesting that much of what is being discussed now about how to stay sane, connected, and even happy while locked up, or out of a job, is what economists studying “happiness” have been advocating for years.

We all know at least some friends, colleagues, and family who have suffered tremendously from the isolation and disruption and, of course, many of us are struggling acutely as this post goes live.

By taking away jobs, security, and social interactions, the policies of the pandemic have brought to our attention what matters most in life. A nice way to sum up some of the most prominent findings from decades of happiness research  or, more specifically, life satisfaction research,  is the following: happy societies promote a sense of dignity, of self-efficacy, and of community. In other words, people who report high life satisfaction enjoy basic health, some sense of security, opportunities to contribute meaningfully, and positive social engagement.

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Strange new world
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

From analyzing life satisfaction data gathered over many years, we can now say with considerable confidence how important such outcomes are. One way that economists express the impact of a change in a particular circumstance is to calculate the corresponding change in income which would have the same overall effect on life satisfaction.

In this way, for example, we know that the cost of becoming unemployed is far more than the economic value of lost income. Economists can put a number on it: becoming unemployed is as bad for one's happiness as taking a permanent 60% pay cut. This is in addition to the actual loss of income that comes with unemployment. Based on past evidence, we expect some of these psychological costs to come through increase in risk of suicide, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse from those suffering new and acute financial stresses.

We also know that a 50% reduction in how often we see friends and family is as bad for happiness as losing half our income. And being able to contribute to a meaningful community cause once per month is, based on international data, as important for life quality as a 93% boost to income. The value is even higher within the USA.

Imagine, then, what happens if we design a policy which puts people out of work, takes away their social interactions, and shuts down their normal opportunities to contribute meaningfully to others? That is what we have done in order to “flatten the curve.” And the impact on well-being has been enormous.

Given all this evidence on the real-life costs of our response to COVID-19, have all the lockdowns been a terrible mistake? There won’t be a simple answer to that, and a fair judgment would be based on the risks we faced at the time decisions were made, rather than using 20/20 hindsight about how this particular virus panned out.

In any case, using numbers like those above, derived from life satisfaction data, economists in the U.K. calculated in April 2020 the trade-off between continuing versus relaxing the COVID lockdown. They estimate that the U.K. should re-open on June 1 in order to best balance the happiness costs and the lives lost.

Regardless of future decisions about when to re-open, governments should have addressed the inevitable epidemic of loneliness and social disruption at the earliest stage of their “social distancing” directives.

There are of course other important policy questions that we must reflect on thanks to COVID. These relate to choices we make about healthcare, social supports, equality, unpaid work, and collective action in facing systemic and international threats, such as climate change. Optimists (like me) see enormous potential for refining our priorities and re-evaluating our assumptions as we emerge from the crisis and adjust our social policies and economic priorities to value real human experience.

Turning to our individual lives, what can we learn from the pandemic? It is a time to reflect on our own experience, possibly to monitor our own answers to the life satisfaction question, and to note which activities throughout our new daily schedules gives us the most and least enjoyment. In doing this, we may draw surprising lessons about what matters most for our own happiness and that of those around us. 

If you find your perspective shifting about what the real “essential services” are for society, or for your mental well-being, you will be mirroring the process of ongoing happiness research. Maybe you have already gained newfound appreciation for the overwhelming importance of your social and family connections, for broad social “togetherness” and inclusion, and for the ability to access the basics of life.

References

What Works Wellbeing (2018), "Wellbeing in policy analysis", https://www.whatworkswellbeing.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Overview-incorporating-wellbeing-in-policy-analysis-vMarch2018.pdf

Richard Layard, Andrew Clark, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Christian Krekel, Daisy Fancourt, Nancy Hey, Gus O’Donnell (April 2020), "When to release the lockdown: A wellbeing framework for analysing costs and benefits", https://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/publications/abstract.asp?index=6976

Lara B. Aknin, C. P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James, Michael I. Norton, “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 635-652. doi:10.1037/a0031578, 2013.

John F. Helliwell and C. P. Barrington-Leigh, “How much is social capital worth?”, in The Social Cure: Identity, Health, and Well-being, pp 55–72, edited by Jolanda Jetten, Catherine Haslam, and S. Alexander Haslam, Psychology Press, 2011.