Friday, 11 December 2020

Lockdowns, wellbeing and happiness - the evidence

I've written a bit about happiness economics over the years. I concluded that trying to measure happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction is not very useful in forming public policy because nothing much seems to affect them at the aggregate level apart from the obvious (poverty, war, unemployment, etc.) and even those factors don't affect them as much as you might expect.

I tended to agree with Jamie Whyte's prediction that average happiness scores in Britain would always be within seven and eight out of ten.

But COVID-19 and lockdowns changed all that. I recently did a webinar for the IEA looking at how happiness is measured and what the implications are for policy. It's a talk I've often done in person in the past, but I added some early evidence about the impact of lockdowns with a promise that more data were on their way.

They arrived today from the ONS and it's a grim picture. Rates of depression were double the pre-Covid level in November at 19%, the same rate recorded in June during the first lockdown. Every measure is worse than it was in February and the average scores for happiness and life satisfaction are comfortably below seven out of ten. Note that happiness scores returned to normal in August and September, which suggests that it was the restrictions on freedom, rather than fear of the virus, that was driving these changes.

I suppose you can interpret the data in two ways. Either you can conclude that COVID-19 and the response to it has done unprecedented damage to the nation's wellbeing, or you can conclude that even in the worst year in living memory, wellbeing scores remained above 6.5 out of 10 - and, therefore, that these measures are not sensitive enough to pick up on non-catastrophic changes.

I think both are probably true.

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