A global plague. Forced shutdown of all shopping, entertainment, and worship. A Joe Biden presidential nomination. Really, who wouldn’t be depressed? The only apocalyptic items missing are a plague of locusts, hailfire from the sky, and a Nickelback resurgence.
I’m not predicting any of those, I promise. But according to new results from a longitudinal study by the University of Chicago, Americans might not feel much worse if they appear. We have hit the bottom of a 48-year trend in happiness in 2020 — and that was before the riots:
Spoiler alert: 2020 has been rough on the American psyche. Folks in the U.S. are more unhappy today than they’ve been in nearly 50 years.
This bold — yet unsurprising — conclusion comes from the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. It finds that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% who said the same in 2018. That year, 23% said they’d often or sometimes felt isolated in recent weeks. Now, 50% say that.
The survey, conducted in late May, draws on nearly a half-century of research from the General Social Survey, which has collected data on American attitudes and behaviors at least every other year since 1972. No less than 29% of Americans have ever called themselves very happy in that survey.
Let me pick a nit here with the Associated Press’ prose. If it’s not surprising, it’s not “bold,” either. In fact, it likely fits so well within the national moment that it could very well be viewed as a pedestrian conclusion. Americans in lockdown feel isolated and unhappy? No kidding, Captain Obvious.
The most surprising and daunting part of this result is that most of the responses came before the homicide of George Floyd. If you thought this result was bad, imagine how people feel after two weeks of riots and social unrest. The CHAZ effect alone would be measurable, I’d guess.
The specifics in the poll results are more interesting than the overall conclusion about happiness. The social damage from the lockdowns appears much more significant, for one thing; feelings of isolation have doubled since 2018 (37%, up from 18%), but the pollster wondered why it hasn’t gotten worse. That could be a result of technological options that give more connection to other households, but the overall rise of lack of companionship (45%, up from 27%) suggests that’s not a satisfactory long-term substitute.
That itself has political implications for extending the shutdowns, even apart from the massive political rallies that defy those rules. It shows that enforced isolation is not sustainable for a long period of time, nor is it healthy. People will break quarantines to overcome this at some point, which makes it incumbent on authorities to find ways to allow for rational and safe social interactions as well as retail transactions.
On the economy, this also has some political implications:
Forty-two percent of Americans believe that their children’s standard of living when they are older will be better than their own standard of living—a sharp decline from 57% in 2018 and the lowest level of optimism for the next generation since first measured in 1994. …
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to two seemingly contrasting shifts in public opinion: More Americans than in previous decades are unhappy and pessimistic about the future, and at the same time, more are relatively satisfied financially.
In combination, these results suggest that people are comparing their finances to that of fellow Americans hurt by the economic fallouts from the pandemic while contrasting their happiness to their own mood prior to the outbreak.
The upswing in reopening and economic activity might mitigate this, but don’t think for a moment this won’t have a political impact, too. The anger over extended shutdowns will continue to build as jobs evaporate and businesses dissolve. That will create a somewhat inchoate political momentum that might be hard to calculate but will certainly not favor those governors and mayors who have kept them in place — no matter how rational they might be. After watching those leaders stand by or even encourage the massive rallies in the wake of the Floyd homicide, any further attempts to reimpose other restrictions will generate even more anger and momentum.
Unhappiness has serious consequences, in other words, even when it’s entirely predictable. That’s why politicians usually avoid choosing options that create it. For some reason, many of them have forgotten that lesson in 2020, but they might end up learning it the hard way in a few months.