The COVID-19 pandemic has not, to put it lightly, been a happy time. But it has been and continues to be a rich period for scientists who study happiness. Researchers around the world have followed what happens to wellbeing during the biggest collective threat to happiness most of us have ever known.
First, an obvious finding: the pandemic has clearly (and understandably) eroded happiness in the U.S. and globally. Since it began, four in 10 U.S. adults have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, up from about 1 in 10 in 2019, the Kaiser Family Foundation found this year. In the U.K., reports of anxiety and depression were at a high during lockdown restrictions in March 2020 and fell when restrictions were loosened later that spring, according to data published in April 2021 from the University College London’s COVID-19 Social Study, an ongoing study of more than 40,000 people.
But the pandemic isn’t the end of happiness. The COVID-19 Social Study also found that people’s sense of meaning—the feeling that life is worthwhile—stayed stable throughout the U.K.’s spring lockdown.
What makes people resilient in the face of such grim circumstances? Recent research highlights a few activities that seem to help the most.
Staying social, even while distancing
The positive effects of social connection hold true even when physical contact may be dangerous. Who you lived with was particularly important in the early months of the pandemic: the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics found in June 2020 that being married or cohabitating with a partner was among the most protective measures against loneliness during this time. Various studies also found that when people felt connected to others during the pandemic, they tended to experience fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Since the start of the pandemic, people have done a “huge amount of coping” says Nancy Hey, the executive director of What Works Centre for Wellbeing, a U.K. company that gathers evidence about what works to improve wellbeing.“In some ways, we come together more when there’s a crisis,” says Hey. “The best thing you can do… is to get on the phone with your family and friends. Knowing that there’s somebody there for you in times of trouble is really important.”
For many people, relationships increasingly went digital. Video calls surged during the pandemic; according to market research company Sensor Tower, usage of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet was almost 21 times higher during the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Digital interactions like these also appear to protect wellbeing. Some recent research has found that social contact, both in person and via phone or video call, was associated with fewer depressive symptoms. Video calls eased some of the lockdown loneliness in a way not enough people appreciate, says John Helliwell, professor emeritus at Vancouver School of Economics and an editor of the World Happiness Report, an annual assessment of global wellbeing. “If this had happened 50 years ago, and everybody had been at home with no way of really being in contact with others, that would have been much, much more difficult,” says Helliwell. “The ability to work and socially connect without physical contact has been an enormously important support mechanism.”
Still, video calls can feel frustrating and inadequate, leading to mixed effects on wellbeing. One survey published in September 2021 of more than 20,000 people from 101 countries found that people who were dissatisfied with video calls were more likely to be lonely during the pandemic. Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at University College London and a leader of the COVID-19 Social Study, says that while video calls shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for in-person contact, in moderation they seemed to help people stay connected and happier. “We found that people who have used video calls, as well as regular phone calls, as a virtual means of staying in touch [for] limited amounts of time per day— that seems to have been beneficial,” says Fancourt.
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Being neighborly and volunteering
The pandemic drove people to find new ways to connect outside of their social bubbles. Many people became closer to their neighbors, for example, or took up volunteer work. The COVID-19 Social Study found in September 2021 that a third of respondents said they’d received more support from their neighbors during the pandemic than before it.
Volunteering also became more popular. In March 2020, the U.K.’s National Health Service asked for volunteers who would do tasks like shopping for people who were isolating or quarantining, transporting patients and moving equipment. It met its goal—250,000 volunteers—in less than 24 hours; two days later, it met its second goal of 750,000 people. Those who stepped up likely received a happiness boost: Studies suggest that volunteering has a positive impact not only on the people who are the recipients of help, but also on the volunteers. A May 2021 analysis of more than 55,000 U.K. adults from the COVID-19 Social Study during 11 weeks of lockdown found that volunteering was one of the top activities associated with a rise in life satisfaction.
Doing hobbies and exercising
Not all helpful strategies are social. Activities that bring people outdoors, like gardening, and creative pursuits like making art and reading have also supported people’s wellbeing, says Fancourt. Unsurprisingly, another mood-boosting activity was exercise, which past research has linked to emotional benefits. A survey of nearly 13,700 people from 18 countries published in Frontiers in Psychology in September 2020 found that people who exercised frequently during the lockdown reported more positive moods. Most people seem to have understood that exercise was an important way to keep their spirits up; the study found that people generally didn’t exercise less during lockdown than they did before, and nearly a third of people exercised more.
Of course, measures like these only go so far for people who lost a loved one to the virus or were dangerously ill themselves. One striking thing about the data surrounding wellbeing during the pandemic is that it’s inherently unfair; for instance, having a low income is associated with poorer mental health during the pandemic, according to the results of the COVID-19 Social Study. However, if there’s any silver lining to the psychological upheaval of the pandemic, it’s greater mental health literacy, says Fancourt. People were forced to grapple with their own understanding of mental health, “their ability to talk about it with appropriate language, their ability to recognize their own symptoms and feelings or potential mental health problems,” she says. “COVID has been its own campaign about mental health.”
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