Here’s a puzzle.
Not since 1945 has there been so dramatic a year. Daily headlines report the imposition, lifting and re-imposition of unprecedented peacetime controls over personal behaviour, steep rises in infection and death rates, dropping to a plateau in the summer and now sharply increasing again, and an unending drama of failed personal protection equipment and malfunctioning test and trace systems.
Since late March, social scientists have been striving to measure the impact of the crisis on what in the second world war was called ‘morale’. I have discussed some of their findings in earlier posts.
The two most useful studies are managed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and a Nuffield-funded research group at University College London (UCL). For the sake of speed, the ONS re-deployed an established Opinions and Lifestyle Study, based on a statistically representative sample of 2,200 people. UCL went for scale, recruiting over 70,000 respondents through advertising and contacting ‘organisations representing vulnerable groups.’
The data in the two surveys are broadly similar, and oddly counter-intuitive. Whereas the drivers of physical change represent a fairground roller coaster during an event which is far from reaching its conclusion, the dominant shape of the graphs of emotion over the period is a gentle countryside, a landscape of gradual inclines and declivities. Why this should be so is difficult to understand.
Take, for instance, the basic category of what the ONS terms ‘life satisfaction’, where 10 is ‘completely satisfied with your life nowadays’ and 0 is ‘not at all.’ On their index, it stood at 7.2 when the first lockdown was imposed at the end of March, fell to 6.8 at the peak of infections and deaths at the end of April, and since then has oscillated between these figures, only falling a little below 6.8 at the beginning of October.*
The baseline for those ‘very or somewhat worried about the effect of COVID-19 on their life right now’ is higher, but nothing like as volatile as the surrounding events. It runs at the low 80s during the first crisis of infections and deaths, falls to the upper 60s by the end of May where it remains until the end of September when it climbs just above 70. The last recorded figure, for 14-18 October, is 76.
Similarly, the ‘percentage of adults that say their wellbeing is being affected by COVID-19’ falls from 53 to the low 40s by the beginning of May, stands at 39 in mid-September, and is back up to 49 in the last return. The ‘percentage of adults with high levels of anxiety’ falls from 50 to the low 30s by the beginning of May and is still at 33 in mid-October.**
I have discussed ‘loneliness’ in earlier posts. The ONS and UCL use slightly different measures but the results are the same: virtually a flat line from first to last, just a little higher, in its more extreme form, than the condition across the post-war era.
There are discernible changes tracking the surges in the pandemic, but not on the same scale. And the base level of emotional wellbeing is far less disastrous than might be supposed in this most tragic year. Most of us would settle for a life satisfaction of around seven at any time in our lives.
Why this should be he case is far from clear. It is partly a consequence of averaging experience. Those who have encountered the loss of health, loved ones or employment will report widely different scores. Nonetheless the relative stability of the graphs over the whole period is a striking fact.
We appear to be a more phlegmatic society than we might suppose, as was also the conclusion of the wartime studies of ‘morale’.