It’s been a rough year for 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.
Most of the new survey’s interviews were completed before the death of George Floyd touched off nationwide protests and a global conversation about race and police brutality, adding to the feelings of stress and loneliness Americans were already facing from the coronavirus outbreak — especially for black Americans.
Among other findings from the new poll about life in the pandemic:
- The public is less optimistic today about the standard of living improving for the next generation than it has been in the past 25 years. Only 42% of Americans believe that when their children reach their age, their standard of living will be better. A solid 57% said that in 2018. Since the question was asked in 1994, the previous low was 45% in 1994.
- Compared with surveys conducted after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans are less likely to report some types of emotional and psychological stress reactions following the COVID-19 outbreak. Fewer report smoking more than usual, crying or feeling dazed now than after those two previous tragedies, though more report having lost their temper.
- About twice as many Americans report being lonely today as in 2018, and not surprisingly, given the lockdowns that tried to contain the spread of the coronavirus, there’s also been a drop in satisfaction with social activities and relationships. Compared with 2018, Americans also are about twice as likely to say they sometimes or often have felt a lack of companionship (45% vs. 27%) and felt left out (37% vs. 18%) in the past four weeks.
What is surprising, said Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago, was that loneliness was not even more prevalent.
“It isn’t as high as it could be,” she said. “People have figured out a way to connect with others. It’s not satisfactory, but people are managing to some extent.”
The new poll found that there haven’t been significant changes in Americans’ assessment of their families’ finances since 2018 and that Americans’ satisfaction with their families’ ability to get along financially was as high as it’s been over nearly five decades.
Reimagining happiness is almost hard-wired into Americans’ DNA, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
“Human beings are remarkably resilient. There’s lots and lots of evidence that we adapt to everything. We move forward,” she said, adding that she’s done happiness studies since the pandemic started and found that some people are slightly happier than last year.