It doesn’t seem easy to tell the difference between COVID fatigue and depression.

What constitutes the real differences is best left to the pros, but the descriptions of COVID fatigue seem to make a lot of sense, including how it leads to a sinking enthusiasm for keeping your distance from others, wearing your mask and other things we need to do to reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One reason we feel that way is simply a weariness of daily life that can be so limited compared with what people were used to.

COVID fatigue also has been compared with what happens to the best-intentioned people who start the year fired up about exercising regularly and getting fit, only to lose interest by April.

Nostalgia for the pre-pandemic days of gathering with friends and family seems to play a part as well. It’s sometimes noted in the research on quitting smoking that a longing for the good old days of lighting up can sometimes lead people to start smoking again, even though they know it is a bad idea.

It’s almost physically painful to drive by a favorite burger-and-beer spot in the neighborhood, with its green, yellow and red Summit Brewing sign glowing brightly, and only slow down a bit before heading home.

Yet, though weary, we keep driving home — and perhaps place a curbside pickup order — because we know that if there were ever a time to buckle down on the safe practices of distancing, washing up and mask wearing, it’s now.

There’s an explosion of new confirmed COVID-19 cases underway here in the Upper Midwest. Hardly a day goes by without some new, steadily more distressing daily record in Minnesota on some key indicator. On Wednesday, it was another record for reported deaths.

The spreading virus is not a county-by-county problem, either. It’s an everywhere-in-the-region problem.

This out-of-control spread can’t be good for sustaining the economic recovery, as people increasingly will hunker down even if their public officials don’t insist on it.

Then last week, on one of my bluest days since the health crisis began in the early spring, a new research report arrived from the market strategist Jim Paulsen and gave me a jolt of optimism.

Paulsen’s job at Minneapolis-based Leuthold Group is to look ahead at the economy and the financial markets, which can’t be separated these days from the pandemic. He acknowledged that COVID-19 growth could eventually drive business activity much lower.

Yet, as he put it, as dangerous as the new virus remains, “economically it’s not nearly the same animal that shut the economy down initially in March.” Treatment and better therapies have improved to reduce the risk of death, and businesses have adapted to operate more safely.

“We are now getting close to halfway through the fourth quarter, and there is still nothing but very strong economic reports coming out almost every day,” he said.

He ticked off a number of them, from small-business confidence remaining at an historically high rate to positive data from American manufacturing. Yet what’s interesting is what these numbers are saying about the behavior of people.

The economy slumps when people become more afraid, unwilling to spend money because they are not sure there will be more paychecks to pay the Visa bill.

Paulsen said he is not seeing that tightening.

“When I look at the consumer, they are not just spending money, they are spending money on things that you only spend it on if you are confident about your future,” he said.

People afraid of losing their jobs don’t buy or remodel houses and purchase new cars. Yet the housing market is hot, and new-car sales in October showed more steady improvement from the bottom reached in the spring.

Business owners fearful of losing money don’t order new big-ticket assets, either. Yet most recently the new orders for capital goods, excluding aircraft and defense, were higher than they were in 2019.

The job-quit rate is up again as well. Workers afraid of losing their jobs don’t quit the one they have to take a chance on a new one.

“There’s just a lot of behaviors that tell me we are developing a sustainability here that we didn’t even have a few months ago,” he said.

Paulsen, of course, acknowledged that there are lots of people still in pain, including family members of people who have had serious cases of COVID-19 or have died from the illness. And one thing we know from past downturns is that the economic pain always continues for the unlucky well after the economy begins recovering.

A big number for gross domestic product growth won’t feel that great to that person who had to close a business this year or had to decide whether to change occupations to something other than serving people face-to-face in crowded spaces.

Many people started the year in the financial hole, too, just because they never got paid that much for their work and paying the bills was never easy.

Paulsen talked about all that in a conversation this week, pointing out that some economic wounds may never fully heal from what we’ve been through this year. He mentioned that where he grew up in Iowa, the community never recovered from the “double dip” recessions of the early 1980s.

The message from analysts such as Paulsen is not that the economy is already back to full speed, just that it seems to have enough momentum to power through the coming winter. And many people can begin feeling better about their own situation just because the economy seems to be moving in the right direction.

After all, people can never really tell how fast they are going. But they can sure feel any acceleration.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302