Throughout the pandemic, curious minds have wondered what effect lockdowns and social distancing were having on individual well-being and mental health. Humans are a social species and, although temperaments vary, they generally enjoy and seek out social interaction. COVID-19 restrictions have curtailed opportunities for that. Yet a new study finds that individual well-being has, in fact, improved for many Americans over the past year.
Sharecare, a digital health firm, teamed up with researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health to survey more than 450,000 Americans about their well-being in 2020. To form a composite measure of well-being, the researchers asked respondents questions in two sets of five "domains." The first set covered the individual's access to food, health, housing, transport and community facilities. These metrics were all largely unchanged from the previous year.
They then asked questions about the subjects' individual circumstances in five domains: physical health; financial security; having supportive personal relationships (social well-being); the extent to which they felt part of a community, and their sense of purpose in life. Despite the pandemic, all but one of these metrics (financial security) improved compared with 2019, causing overall individual well-being to rise from 60.3 to 64.3 (on a 100-point scale). Social well-being rose the most, increasing by nearly 7 points to 64.3.
Social well-being is highest in the richest states, in the Northeast and West. But there is no obvious reason why some states have improved more than others. The study found no correlation with COVID-19 infections, the unemployment rate or the outcome of the 2020 election.
The states with the least severe lockdowns, as measured by another index from the University of Oxford, did tend to experience the biggest increases in social well-being. But the five states enjoying the greatest improvement — Maryland, Delaware, South Dakota, Alabama, and Minnesota — do not appear to have much in common.
Although the reason may be difficult to pin down, context and technology offer some clues. Amid the grief and devastation wrought by COVID-19, Americans might have been more aware of their fortunes relative to others'. Indeed, a previous Sharecare survey carried out during the depths of lockdowns in April 2020 found that over one-third of Americans said they "felt grateful."
The same survey also found that 95% of Americans were using technology to stay in touch with others. Perhaps swapping empty office chatter and obligatory social engagements for fewer but more meaningful interactions — albeit done virtually — improved overall social well-being.
Some research suggests that after collective traumatic experiences, such as natural disasters, communities experience more social cohesion. During the pandemic, divisive disagreements over health issues such as the wearing of face masks cast doubt on such a theory. But the pandemic may have made Americans seek more support from friends, prompting an improvement in social well-being.
Sharecare's findings may not be easily generalizable to other countries. Gallup, a polling firm, asked 160,000 people across 116 countries about their positive and negative experiences on a single day between late 2020 and early 2021. Globally, the negative-experiences index reached its highest level yet in 2020, continuing a trend that began in 2014. Country scores on the positive-experiences index — a composite measure of positive emotions based on five survey questions — vary greatly, but the index remained broadly stable between 2019 and 2020.
There has been no one experience with COVID-19 — rich countries and poorer countries have suffered differently and are on different paths to post-pandemic normalcy. In America and some other places, poorer communities and racial minorities have been hit harder by the pandemic. Data from other countries show that theold became happier and the young more miserablein 2020.
But more analysis of data, disaggregated by demographic differences, is needed to solve the mystery of why the average American's well-being improved during a pandemic.