National Well-Being Before and During the Pandemic

The toll of COVID-19 on flourishing.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has altered daily life in countless ways, with potentially dire implications for well-being. From struggles with finding childcare or learning to work from home, to the toll taken on one’s health by social isolation, or on one’s finances by unemployment, the effects have been profound, and their combinations across individuals and institutions seemingly endless.

At the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, we have been trying to study and understand, empirically and quantitatively, how various domains of flourishing have changed during the pandemic. The results of this research are available in a newly published study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The Pandemic and Well-Being in the Nation

This study used our flourishing measure across six domains of human life: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security. Data were collected on a national sample of individuals representative of the United States on geographic region, age, gender, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and religious self-identification with 1,010 individuals in January of 2020 (prior to the World Health Organization declaration of the pandemic) and a similar sample of 3,020 individuals in June of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. Each of the six domains of flourishing was assessed using two questions from our flourishing measure.

Unsurprisingly, flourishing in general has declined. Interestingly, however, different domains of flourishing have been affected in different ways. And some domains of flourishing have gone down a lot more than others.

On a scale from zero to ten, physical and mental health have gone down by seven-tenths of a point (from 6.9 to 6.2), as have happiness and life satisfaction (down from 7.1 to 6.4). The largest decline was for financial and material stability which went down nearly an entire point (down from 5.7 to 4.8), reflecting the profound effects the pandemic has had on the economy. These are large declines. In statistical terms, they are about a third of a standard deviation, meaning that they reflect a fall for the average American from the 50th percentile to the 37th percentile of the original flourishing distribution. Again, and unsurprisingly: the pandemic has been bad for well-being.

However, some other domains of flourishing have not, on average, been as severely affected. The changes in meaning and purpose, or in character, or even in social relationships were much more modest. With self-report assessments of social relationships, the change was less than two-tenths of a point (a modest decline from 6.9 to 6.7). We were somewhat surprised by this, given the various restrictions on social interaction at present.

HFH
Table
Source: HFH

One of the other important and interesting aspects of the data, however, is that the variance of the responses increased across all the flourishing domains. Individual experiences in each flourishing domain are more variable and wide-ranging now than they were prior to the pandemic. So while social relationship scores have gone down on average only slightly, this is true in part because significant declines in this area for some (perhaps especially those living alone) have been partially offset by modest gains for others.

For some, that is, the pandemic may have in fact allowed for greater investment in family, or housemates, or existing relationships. Some research, for example, suggests that fathers’ relationships with their children have been especially strengthened. Flourishing in each of these domains has gone down for many, but individual experiences have been highly variable. Nevertheless, the national means in each domain do make clear where we as a nation, on average, are in need of the most help.

The January data from the study we just released is also interesting, because it provides our first national benchmarking data across the flourishing domains (with national mean scores of about 7 in each of the domains, except for financial and material security, which was about 6). This data will also allow us to assess when well-being has eventually returned to its pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, if our Global Flourishing Study is indeed eventually funded, we would in the future be able to carry out similar types of analyses in 22 geographically and culturally diverse countries representing 72% of the world’s population.

HERO IMAGES/Adobe Spark (Creative Commons)
Source: HERO IMAGES/Adobe Spark (Creative Commons)

Flourishing Amidst Coronavirus

When we published our earlier posting in March on Flourishing Amidst Coronavirus, we acknowledged that losses with regard to health and financial well-being were likely to be especially severe. However, we also suggested various ways in which other aspects of flourishing including meaning, and character, and relationships could be maintained, and even improved, amidst the challenges presented by the pandemic. In many ways, the course of the pandemic has vindicated these predictions. Health and financial well-being have substantially declined, while meaning, relationships, and character have seen much more modest drops. There have indeed been ways to sustain these other aspects of flourishing.

The happiness and life satisfaction domain in many ways reflects composite changes in numerous aspects of a person’s life. While we suggested that there were practices for trying to sustain happiness amidst the pandemic as well, the decline in mental and physical health and in financial security seem to have profoundly affected happiness as well.

In our next research posting, we will go into greater detail on some of our work on activities to enhance flourishing and on some of our current efforts to promote flourishing activities in practice. Clearly well-being has declined in numerous domains, and public health and policy efforts are unquestionably needed to contain and end the pandemic. But individuals can make efforts to enhance their own flourishing, and that of others as well, even in the midst of the present challenges.

On a more personal note, my own family’s life and flourishing has been affected in many ways that mirror the national well-being data. We are less happy, and have had greater concerns over physical and mental health. Our sense of meaning and purpose and character have been challenged, but there have also been opportunities for growth; with regard to social relationships, while there have been real losses with friendship and community, we have also experienced a deeper investment in both immediate family and extended family. Again, in many ways, this seems to reflect the changes on average in the nation. The one clear exception for my family to the broad changes reflected in this study has been our relative financial security. Indeed, this is the domain where changes, variability, and inequalities have likely been the greatest. In our data, it is the domain that has the very highest variance. Individual experiences have varied dramatically. Indeed, there is some indication that relatively well-off individuals in fact now have greater savings, since there are fewer opportunities for spending, while others have had their already modest savings entirely depleted.

Nonetheless, this challenging development represents an opportunity for those who have been less affected financially by the pandemic to help support individuals and institutions who have been more adversely affected. Indeed, that opportunity might even be considered by some to be an obligation; in his recent encyclical on human solidarity, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis quotes the fourth-century bishop St. John Chrysostom’s striking warning, “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood.” Many people in one’s day to day life may be in need and can be helped directly; there are also countless charitable organizations carrying out excellent work to help as well, both in this country and abroad. Donations can likewise be made to cultural and educational institutions that have been adversely affected and cannot carry out their ordinary activities to sustain their life into the future.

Generous contributions to individuals and institutions in need can help to shore up societal flourishing and promote the common good, even in the present challenging circumstances. Moreover, there is good evidence that charitable giving contributes not only to the well-being of others but to one’s own well-being too (this will be the subject of a future research update). Today, however, we need to do everything we can as a society, and as individuals, to preserve well-being from declining further, and to restore the losses already present during the pandemic.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. For past postings please see our Psychology Today Human Flourishing Blog.

References

VanderWeele, T.J., Fulks, J., Plake, J.F., and Lee, M.T. (2020). National well-being measures before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in online samples. Journal of General Internal Medicine, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-06274-3