The happiness gap between rich and poor Brits has shrunk under the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, a new study suggests.
Some of the most deprived social groups in Britain saw a relative increase in life satisfaction, while the wealthy experienced declines.
Researchers used a year’s worth of data taken from YouGov Weekly Mood Tracker surveys and Google searches to track the British population’s wellbeing before and during the pandemic.
The ‘wellbeing inequality gap’ – the difference in the happiness between wealthy professionals and the unemployed – began to narrow during lockdown, they found.
Researchers claim that although happiness fell as the coronavirus pandemic began, lockdown itself helped to restore it – possibly due to the benefits of working from home, spending more time with family and overall having ‘less to lose’.
High-flying business execs and CEOs, on the other hand, had to put their ‘hedonic’ and lavish lifestyles on hold during lockdown, causing dissatisfaction and frustration.
‘It was the pandemic, not the lockdown, that depressed people’s wellbeing,’ said Dr Roberto Foa, from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies and director of the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research.
‘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.’
The study, conducted by Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy, claims to be one of the first to distinguish the effects of the pandemic from those of lockdown on psychological welfare.
The study made use of week-by-week data, rather than monthly or annual comparisons.
Overall, the proportion of Britons self-reporting as ‘happy’ halved in just three weeks – from 51 per cent just before the UK’s first Covid-19 fatality, to 25 per cent by the time national lockdown began.
But during lockdown, the reverse happened – happiness climbed back to almost pre-pandemic levels of 47 per cent by the end of May.
Overall life satisfaction saw a similar drop when the pandemic took hold, and a rebound during lockdown.
But while the ‘wellbeing inequality’ gap between well-off professionals and the unemployed remained wide, lockdown started to shrink it.
Underemployed individuals – those of working age who are either unemployed, out of work but not in education or seeking employment, or working fewer than eight hours a week – showed an uptick in wellbeing in comparison to other groups.
This effect was statistically significant for underemployed males during the start of lockdown, and remained positive throughout the period, and was also ‘large and positive’ throughout the lockdown period for females.
Just before lockdown, 47 per cent of ‘underemployed’ men reported feeling stressed, but after two months this had fallen to 30 per cent – the lowest level for a year.
By late May, 40 per cent of underemployed men were self-reporting as ‘happy’, above the pre-pandemic average of 36 per cent from June 2019 to February 2020.
15 per cent of underemployed men also described themselves as ‘inspired’ compared with 4 per cent 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 – such as 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.
The researchers worry, however, that the longer-term effects on both underemployed and high status men are yet to be fully felt.
‘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,’ said Dr Mark Fabian from the Bennett Institute.
‘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.’
In general, women experienced a steeper decline in wellbeing than men at the pandemic’s onset.
But women co-habiting with partners, family or friends also had levels of life satisfaction recover during lockdown.
For women living alone there was very little rebound, however, and the isolation of people living alone in lockdown appears to have negatively affected women in particular.
Overall, lockdown may have gone a ‘surprisingly long way’ in improving severe mental health effects of the early pandemic.
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, 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 to investigate suicide-related search terms.
They discovered a significant fall during lockdown months in several countries, including the UK and Ireland, but a rise in nations that implemented lockdowns without extensive income support, such as India and South Africa.
Foa and colleagues suggest that this change in web searches around suicidal thoughts may relate to the effect of lockdowns on underemployed men, one of ‘the highest risk groups for suicide’.
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.
The findings are published today on the Institute’s website.