Happiness fell as the coronavirus pandemic began – but lockdown helped to restore it, research suggests.
The wellbeing inequality gap between wealthy professionals and the unemployed even began to narrow during lockdown, according to the study by Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
Researchers used a year’s worth of data taken from YouGov Weekly Mood Tracker surveys and Google searches to track wellbeing in the British population before and during the pandemic.
They say it is one of the first studies to distinguish the effects of the pandemic from those of lockdown on psychological welfare, as it uses week-by-week data, rather than monthly or annual comparisons.
The proportion of Britons self-reporting as “happy” halved in just three weeks – from 51% just before the UK’s first Covid-19 fatality, to 25% by the time national lockdown began.
This reversed under lockdown, with happiness climbing back to almost pre-pandemic levels of 47% by the end of May.
The study indicates that, while the “wellbeing inequality” gap remained wide, lockdown started to shrink it.
Some of the most deprived social groups saw a relative rise in life satisfaction, while the wealthy experienced declines, according to the research.
Dr Roberto Foa, from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies and director of the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research, said: “It was the pandemic, not the lockdown, that depressed people’s wellbeing.
“Mental health concerns are often cited as a reason to avoid lockdown.
“In fact, when combined with employment and income support, lockdown may be the single most effective action a government can take during a pandemic to maintain psychological welfare.”
Just before lockdown, 47% of “underemployed” men reported feeling stressed, but after two months this had fallen to 30% – the lowest level for a year.
By late May, 40% of underemployed men were self-reporting as “happy”, above the pre-pandemic average of 36% from June 2019 to February 2020, with 15% describing themselves as “inspired” compared with 4% at the start of the year.
Underemployed men saw a relative gain in life satisfaction during lockdown that was higher than their previous peak of Christmas 2019.
“During lockdown, welfare schemes were expanded and hardship funds introduced, along with amnesties on overdue rent and bills,” said Dr Foa.
“This probably reduced stress for people living precariously.
“In addition, people with little money don’t consume or travel as much, so may have had less to lose and more to gain from lockdown.”
This is in contrast to high social status groups, the managers and top professionals, who saw a small but persistent slump in life satisfaction that lockdown only slightly alleviated.
“Well-paid professionals may have experienced stress through combined work and domestic duties, and an inability to engage in consumption habits that have a social basis, from holidays to dining out,” said Dr Foa.
Dr Mark Fabian, from the Bennett Institute, said: “Contrary to widespread concerns, lockdowns seem to improve wellbeing rather than detract from it during a pandemic, not least because they reduce the risk of infection.”
“However, as the initial shock of the pandemic fades into a likely recession, and worries about jobs and income return, the real mental health challenge may just be beginning.”
The study’s authors said the over-65s saw a fall in life satisfaction that lingered into lockdown, and they suggest this may stem from increased Covid-19 fatality fears.
In addition to YouGov data from England, Scotland and Wales, the researchers expanded their study to cover seven other nations – Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa – using the “Google Trends” tool.
The researchers said the trend of a sharp rise in negative mood during initial outbreaks of the virus, followed by a rapid recovery when lockdowns were introduced, was also seen in these countries.
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