Last Saturday, I got coffee outside with a friend whom I’d barely seen all pandemic. Straight after bumping elbows, he proudly took out his phone to show me his latest medical tests: his bad cholesterol had plummeted because he had stopped eating out. He was happy not socialising. Invited to two illegal dinner parties the previous night, he had told each host that he couldn’t come because he was going to the other gathering. He then sat at home and watched Netflix. We enjoyed seeing each other, but in less than an hour we were both done, made our excuses and each retreated home to blessed solitude.
The focus during the pandemic has rightly been on people who have suffered: the dead, the bereaved, the lonely, the depressed, the newly unemployed, the impoverished, women beaten by partners, parents stuck in endless home school and the young watching their youth tick away unused. But there’s a guilty truth that rarely dares speak its name: many of us became happier during the pandemic. Now, as vaccines promise an eventual return to normal life, we aren’t sure we want it.
Ipsos’s annual Global Happiness survey, which polled 20,000 adults in 27 countries last July and August, came up with an intriguing finding: 63 per cent said they were happy, just one percentage point down on 2019. This was around the usual yearly decline: the percentage claiming to be happy fell 14 points globally between 2011 and 2020, with particularly steep drops in Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Spain and India. Last year’s loss of the public sphere didn’t seem crucial, because the most-cited sources of happiness were private ones: “my health/physical wellbeing”, “my relationship with my partner/spouse” and “my children”.
Similarly, Meike Bartels, professor of genetics and wellbeing at VU Amsterdam, compared survey data of 5,000 people pre-pandemic with about 18,000 afterwards and found a sizeable minority, about one person in five, reporting “increased levels of happiness, optimism and meaning in life”. The pandemic had simplified many “busy, complicated” lives, Bartels told Horizon, the EU research and innovation magazine: “Some people realised they probably didn’t live the life they liked, [and then] spent more time at home with their families — so there was some stress relief.” The happy contingent may be even bigger than these figures suggest, given that admitting to contentment during a pandemic is socially inappropriate.
It’s easy to dismiss the happy as “privileged” (in contemporary leftwing language) or “elites” (the rightwing translation). However, that’s a dubious argument. Think of all the humble workers liberated from hated jobs and bosses and — especially in Europe — now paid to sit at home. In Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace survey in 2017, only 15 per cent of employees in 155 countries reported feeling engaged in their jobs. Two-thirds weren’t engaged, and 18 per cent were actively disengaged, “resentful that their needs aren’t being met and acting out their unhappiness”, according to Gallup.
The year’s break will have come as a relief to many furloughed waiters, receptionists and also those doing what the anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” that contribute nothing meaningful to society: “flunkies” whose task is to make others feel important, or “goons” who aggressively sell people useless products, often from call centres.
They have been freed from living to somebody else’s schedule. So have the victims of an underrated source of mass misery: the commute. “Holding all else equal, commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters,” reported Britain’s Office for National Statistics in a survey of 60,000 people in 2014. “Route talk” (“The feeder road was closed, so I…”) isn’t always the mark of a banal mind. Sometimes it’s a cry of pain. Those who continue to commute during the pandemic are enjoying emptier roads and trains.
Most people in developed countries are also richer than before because they have cut down on meals out and holidays. The personal savings rate in the US hit a record 32.2 per cent last April, and thereafter remained considerably higher than pre-pandemic. Above all, those of us who aren’t home schooling or working in intensive care have received the gift of time. This year, I’ve occasionally experienced an unfamiliar sensation: I had nothing urgent to do.
Life in society is unnatural, complicated and overstimulating. For the first time, an almost fully virtual alternative is on offer: virtual work, socialising, entertainment, shopping, food deliveries and sex. Some people will never want to go back.
The other evening, I had to cross Paris after curfew for a work event. Resentful at having my soothing evening routine disrupted, I realised I’d become a creature of habit. Forced to share space with strangers on the metro again, I self-diagnosed mild agoraphobia and what psychologists are calling “re-entry anxiety”.
I’d like to retain some of my pandemic habits, such as spending one day each weekend entirely at home. But I suspect I’ll fall back into the unwanted pre-Covid whirl.
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