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Sick and Tired

Jonathan Clements

BETWEEN 1972 AND 2018, the percentage of Americans who described themselves as very happy ranged from 29% to 38%. The number for 2021 was recently released: Just 19% of us said we’re very happy—10 percentage points lower than any prior survey.

Our happiness, it seems, is another victim of the pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 and the resulting social isolation has delivered a bigger blow to our collective happiness than 2008-09’s Great Recession, 2001’s terrorist attacks and countless other distressing events from the past half-century.

These results come from the General Social Survey (GSS), which is the go-to source for data on American happiness. The survey is often used to highlight the negligible impact of rising standards of living on our happiness. For instance, in 2018, 31% of Americans described themselves as very happy, barely different from the 30% who gave that response in 1972, the first year that the survey was conducted. Over the intervening 46 years, U.S. inflation-adjusted per-capita disposable income climbed 131%.

More money, it seems, hasn’t bought happiness. One reason: We care less about our absolute standard of living, and more about how our financial lot in life compares to that of others. That suggests that the past few years, with a rocky economy that’s affected most of us, wouldn’t necessarily send us into a funk—and, indeed, if the recent decline in reported happiness was solely about money, you’d have expected all those stimulus checks and other federal government goodies to have softened the blow.

The GSS slices its data by age, education, political affiliation and so on. No matter which group you look at, happiness was down in 2021 compared to 2018, though the size of the decline often varied. For instance, while the percentage of men saying they’re very happy dropped from 31% to 21% over the past three years, the decline among women was notably larger, from 31% in 2018 to 18% in 2021. One possible explanation: With children forced to learn remotely, mom ended up shouldering a large part of the resulting burden.

Another intriguing insight: Republicans saw a far smaller drop in happiness than Democrats and independents. The GSS’s 2021 survey also found a 15-percentage-point drop over the past three years in those describing life as exciting, a five-point drop in Americans’ satisfaction with their financial situation and a 13-point decline in those who agree that their standard of living has a good chance of improving. Will 2022 bring a big rebound in our reported happiness? Rising inflation, and tumbling stock and bond prices, won’t help. But in terms of happiness, the crucial issue, I suspect, is how quickly daily life returns to something that looks like normal.

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