It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. That’s the impression you get from the news. There are grim stories and milestones. These are punctuated by Panglossian tales of the lucky few who have found solace in pets and sea shanties.
But what if — for a chunk of the public — this isn’t the worst of times, or the best of times? What if a common experience of the pandemic is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
I thought of this after a poll showed that US couples were as happy with each other as before the pandemic. In the Pew Center’s survey, which was carried out in October and published this week, 53 per cent of married or cohabiting couples said things in their relationship were going “very well” — almost precisely the same figure as in 2019.
The proportion of women who were “very happy” with their male partner’s approach to parenting was unchanged, at 41 per cent. What about the strains of home-schooling and the inevitability of more divorces? Clearly, there are countervailing forces — men spending more time with their kids, couples adapting to the reality, and so on.
There is other evidence of resilience. In the UK, two-thirds of people say they’re coping well with pandemic-related stress, the Mental Health Foundation has found. The figure was higher earlier in the pandemic, but it suggests that many people are not miserable, despite feeling stressed. Going for a walk is the most cited coping mechanism: indeed, if you look at recommended steps to mental health, these are things that we may do more in lockdown, with some necessary adaptations.
This is not to downplay many people’s intense suffering — on the contrary, it underlines the inequality of the pandemic. One in five UK residents were experiencing some form of depression last year, double the previous figure. The Mental Health Foundation’s survey also shows a rise in loneliness, particularly among full-time students.
But for others, possibly a majority, the pandemic is less dramatic. This isn’t the Blitz, where rubble fills the street. You can order takeaways, stream TV and throw snowballs. Even death is distant.
The UK has now recorded more than 100,000 coronavirus deaths. Imagine those deaths were randomly distributed among the population. Imagine also that the average person has 200 friends. The chance of not having lost a friend to coronavirus is then roughly 75 per cent. Given that deaths aren’t distributed randomly, it’s likely most British people haven’t lost close friends, while others have lost several.
I found the first lockdown, when both schools and nurseries were shut, tough. But I wouldn’t say recent months have been among the hardest times in my life. Although lockdown is frustrating and dehumanising, it’s not miserable like the break-up of a relationship, or as stressful as preparing for exams.
When I asked some friends whether they were as happy as they were a year ago, most of them said no. That fits with a UCL study, where life satisfaction and happiness have averaged between 5.5 and 6.5 out of 10 through the pandemic. In normal times, figures above 7 might be expected. (They rose sharply after the first UK lockdown was eased, but have slipped since.) Life satisfaction and happiness are consistently higher among the over-60s, those not living alone, households earning more than £30,000 and men.
The mental health impact of the pandemic is here; it’s just not evenly distributed. For many people, lockdown has been numbing, but not wounding. I think their happiness will rebound quickly as the sun and vaccines arrive. For those who have lost relatives and jobs, and suffered depression, recovery will take much longer. As the pandemic recedes, we will need empathy — a recognition we have not all been in this together. Some of us have been relatively OK.