Wellbeing science has behaved very honourably during this pandemic in my opinion, particularly in the UK, where many of the best-known wellbeing researchers openly pointed to the disproportionate costs of lockdowns compared to their (dubious) benefits. Many stood up in newspaper articles and scientific publications (see also here and here) to be counted against the madness of UK lockdown policies (to no effect, but at least ‘we’ were not complicit bystanders). ‘We’ tried to warn about the disaster that was being inflicted, essentially because ‘we’ knew about the immense harm done when one keeps families and friends physically apart. Also, ‘we’ knew where to look for big negative effects of the disruptions, namely mental health, government debt, IVF treatments, and such.
Yet, how about the other direction: what have we learned about wellbeing from the statistics coming out during the pandemic? After all, it was a huge shock to many parts of the social system and should hence be a prime supplier of insights as to what matters and how things interrelate.
The figure below tells the essential story as it has emerged in several countries. The figure shows the behaviour of the “ONS4” wellbeing module during the pandemic in the UK from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, which has the advantage that it had a consistent methodology before and after March 2020 (ie it was an online survey already).
The top-left graph is the main wellbeing question on how individuals evaluate their own life. As we now know from many countries in Europe, the first lockdown in April-May was bad for wellbeing (a drop of around 0.3), but the second one in the winter (Sep-Mar) was way worse (o.8, which is over 10%). Now, this drop was predicted beforehand on the basis that social life was directly important for wellbeing and would be disrupted with distancing rules. So ‘we’ expected both an immediate drop, but also a very quick return to wellbeing normality if social distancing rules were lifted, as they were largely in the summer of 2020, and are starting to be lifted now. In this regard, the evidence is confirmatory: most of the wellbeing effect is temporary and very probably tied to social distancing rules. We saw that in Australia too: strong wellbeing effects during lockdowns, but not much afterwards, so for instance no social ‘scarring’.
So the first lesson is confirmatory: social relations seem to matter and can be disrupted by anti-social policy. Yet, social relations also come back very quickly when restrictions lift.
If we then turn to the bottom-right corner, we can look at what happened to anxiety, essentially sky-rocketing up at the start of the Fear in March 2020, returning almost to normality in the summer of 2020. It was then ramped up again by all the propaganda and such in the winter, but nowhere near the heights of March 2020 when the fear wave swept through the whole of the West, overcoming the many institutional barriers set against its victory. This, we knew already. What we can also deduce however is that wellbeing is not the mirror image of anxiety: life satisfaction dropped much more in the second wave than anxiety went up again. Rather, other factors matter and anxiety in March 2020 did not coincide with a large drop in life-sat. So the idea that wellbeing is driven by fear is clearly not the case: fear is a factor, but there have been much bigger factors at work. ‘We’ knew that already, but it is handy to have that too confirmed in the large movements associated with the pandemic.
Then the bottom-left one is about more hedonic measures of wellbeing, namely whether individuals felt happy yesterday. This measure also dropped during the lockdowns, but returned more quickly and more fully even before the full lifting of lockdowns. ‘We’ knew that this measure behaved this way from other data, such as bouts of unemployment, during which individuals over time also see their hedonic wellbeing return quickly, but they remain depressed and thus have low life-satisfaction. This is in step with what we see in the top-right corner, ie the question on whether people feel their life is worthwhile. It drops less strongly than life-satisfaction, but it also moves down with the lockdowns, and more strongly in the second lockdowns. It is thus indeed the ‘meaning’ part of life-satisfaction that is not picked up by hedonic wellbeing.
Hence the basic lesson is that the ONS4 behaved roughly as predicted. Even the interrelationships have been roughly in the way anticipated.
The only aspect one might say that was unexpected is that the wellbeing drop in the first lockdown was not as big as in the second lockdown, whilst the disruptive measures were similarly socially invasive. One can explain this by saying that the first lockdown had a ‘let us all fight this together’ element that made the social costs less bad, but that was not truly expected beforehand: looking at the enormous compliance with social distancing rules the first time round and what we saw from Australia, one would have predicted a roughly similar wellbeing drop first lockdown to the second lockdown. So a more careful in-depth look at various hypotheses is still called for when it comes to that discrepancy. There might be mental health scarring effects going on (ie, despair and deep loneliness), but it can also be the effect of economic factors like the realisation of inevitable economic ruination among particular groups.