- Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Spencer Greenberg
Lessons in happiness, from the pandemic
It can be constructive to find a silver lining, even in the darkest and most regrettable clouds.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been terrible. Almost seven million people have died, globally. Rates of depression and anxiety have risen. So have rates of car crashes in the US and unruly passengers on airplanes.
But, amidst all the suffering, there has been a surprising silver lining. We conducted a survey of 301 people in the U.S. and found that 48% said that the Covid-19 pandemic made them happier in at least one way.
Why did some people thrive during the pandemic? And what can that tell you about how you can be happier, whether or not you are in the midst of difficult times?
We asked people who reported mood boosts during Covid what they attributed it to. Interestingly, the reasons that Covid thrivers have reported for feeling happier during Covid relate to evidence-based paths to happiness that have previously been discovered.
More than 50 percent of Covid thrivers attribute increased happiness to an increase in gratitude.
Clearer Thinking has done research showing just how powerful gratitude can be for improving your mood. We created an interactive digital tool called Building Happiness Habits that teaches you to associate different common objects in your environment with gratitude (e.g., mirrors or doorways). We then ran a study that randomly assigned some people to use the tool and others to a control group (that merely counted how many times they saw the common object). Even though this intervention is quick, those who took part in it reported a boost in mood – an additional 2.6 points out of 18 possible points compared to the control group.
Perhaps the pandemic being hard on so many people, with news reports telling us of death and suffering, has made it easier for people to reflect on things they have to be thankful for, or to adjust their psychological baseline.
More than 40% of Covid thrivers attribute increased happiness to a strong exercise routine. According to one study, the average American over the age of 25 exercised 4 more minutes per day during Covid. While this isn't a big average difference, Covid was a catalyst for some of our study participants to start exercising more.
This mood boost for those who exercised more due to Covid aligns with prior research on the value of exercise for mood. A recent survey of the literature concluded that there is “tons of evidence” for the value of exercise in improving mood.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that people may underestimate how much happiness exercise will bring them. A recent study asked people to predict how much enjoyment they would gain from exercising, on a scale from 1 to 10. The participants, on average, expected exercise would give them 6.94 points of happiness. After exercise, the authors asked participants how much they actually enjoyed the exercise. They rated it as 7.69, a significant increase. In other words, people reported that exercise made them a bit happier than they expected it to.
More than 36% of Covid thrivers said that the pandemic improved their relationships with their partners. And more than 30% said it improved their relationships with their children.
According to data from the American Time Use Survey, the average American spent an additional 31 minutes per day with household members in May 2020 to December 2020, compared to the prior year.
Studies have long shown that close relationships are among the biggest predictors of happiness. Shawn Anchor reports that higher perceived social support can improve one's happiness to the equivalent of about $121,000 per year of income. Clearer Thinking has a variety of tools that can help you strengthen and build relationships.
Nearly 40% reported a mood boost during Covid due to working from home.
There is a growing body of evidence that working from home improves happiness. This evidence includes studies (like this one and this one) that found that people who worked from home were significantly happier. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that those who work from home also appear to quit at lower rates.
Working from home can be good for productivity too. A study from the University of Chicago, found that 39.7% of workers report increased productivity while working from home, compared to 15.2% of workers reporting a decrease (and 45% reporting no change). And a two-year study of over 800,000 workers determined that working from home increased productivity by an average of 6%. This too might be unsurprising, given the apparent link between happiness and productivity.
A likely factor in the mood boost from working from home is avoiding commuting. A famous study by Daniel Kahneman and co-authors found that the single most miserable activity is a morning commute.
About 30% of Covid thrivers said that Covid caused them to benefit from spending more time outdoors. There is abundant research showing that being outdoors – and particularly being in nature – improves one’s mood.
A study by MacKerron and Mourato compared the same people doing the same activity at the same time – but in a natural or artificial environment. They found that people were significantly happier if they were in nature, with the biggest boost coming from being near bodies of water.
Another study found that people used more positive words in tweets during visits to urban parks. This increased positivity lasted for hours after the park visit ended. The gain in mood from park visits, at least as measured by tweets, was equivalent to the mood boost from Christmas.
Hence, we can find some good news in the research indicating that people's interest in nature has surged since the pandemic began.
Cutting Down on Socializing
Nearly 30% of Covid thrivers attribute their improved mood to saying no to doing inconvenient and annoying things, such as seeing specific people that they didn’t want to socialize with.
Not socializing is a dangerous path to happiness. In fact, much research has found that being with friends is among the happiest activities. And people can often underrate the value of seeing other people to improve their mood. Studies have found that both introverts and extroverts, on average, get a happiness boost when they are with other people.
But is there such a thing as too much socializing?
Evidence suggests that too much socializing can lead to fatigue and even bad health. The earlier-mentioned study by MacKerron and Mourato found that, while people get a big boost from being with friends and romantic partners, they do not get a significant mood boost from being around other people, such as acquaintances or colleagues.
In addition, a recent study of more than 250,000 people found that there were diminishing marginal returns to socializing. The study found an association between socializing and happiness – but it levels off at about 3 hours of socializing per day. Above this point, people no longer get increased happiness from more socializing.
Covid has been extremely difficult for billions of people around the world. But, looking for a silver lining, we can learn lessons from those who thrived during it. Pandemic or no pandemic, the lessons from happiness research are clear: spend more time outdoors and less time in the office if you can; more time with people you like and less with people you don’t; and do your best to feel grateful every day.