May 21st, 2022


How to be happy during a pandemic

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published Sept. 14, 2020

Happiness is lower, insomnia is higher and there has been an increased incidence of mental health issues during the pandemic. This raises the question of how people can find more ways to be happy during these difficult times. We humans are often creatures of habit, slow to adjust to new circumstances, so which changes should we make?

One striking feature of the pandemic is that U.S. personal savings rates have spiked. In April, the rate exceeded 30%. It has been falling, down to 19.5% in June, and will probably fall further yet. But it is still much higher than it was in the pre-covid era, when it ranged from 3% to 8%.

Despite these falling rates, Americans probably ought to spend even more. Savings have been so high in part because people are hoarding resources for an uncertain future. But a lot of the explanation, especially for those with higher incomes, is that planned expenditures became impossible, dangerous or inconvenient. Instead of flying to Paris and staying at a hotel on the Seine, they drove to a cabin in Maine or West Virginia.

Or maybe they postponed that purchase of a new car or spent less time browsing in a bookstore. In any case, the end result is less spending and more savings, whether conscious or not.

Those may well have been prudent decisions. Still, many of us are not spending enough money having fun. We have been too slow to develop new, covid-compatible interests.

Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

So think how you might achieve more pleasure from spending money. Ordering more books? Spending more time at the farmer's market? Subscribing to more online newsletters? If you wish to see the new movie "Tenet," for example, but fear virus exposure, you and your friends may be able to rent out a whole theater for less than $200.

To some extent people are already doing such things. But it is a common result in empirical economics that consumption habits are slow to adjust to changing circumstances, especially unprecedented circumstances. It is not enough for you to develop new spending habits - you should double down on them.

You also should be giving more to charity. Remittances from the U.S. to Mexico have risen recently, an unusual outcome in a typical recession. Part of the story is that Mexican migrants have fewer ways to spend their money in the U.S., due to covid-related restrictions, and their relatives and friends in Mexico are in needier positions. So follow their lead and do more to help people around the world. It might prove more rewarding than buying more heirloom tomatoes.

A related piece of advice: Tip more, either when you eat out (preferably outside) or when you receive home delivery of food. Waiters and food-service delivery people face higher levels of danger on the job, and are more likely to have precarious family financial situations. So if you used to tip 15%, try 20% or 25%. Just dip into those savings.

You also should spend more time driving to see your friends. (If you have kids at home, you might consider giving both yourself and them a break and driving them to see their friends.) In most parts of America, traffic is noticeably less than it was before the pandemic, so take advantage of that. I recently visited a friend for an outdoors lunch in Washington, D.C. What used to be a 75-minute trip from Virginia now took only 45, and with much less uncertainty.

If you are like me, you probably know a lot of people who live just a little farther away than you are used to traveling. Suddenly they are closer than you think. Meeting in person, even with social distance, is one way to lessen the emotional isolation many people are experiencing because of the pandemic.

The stresses and problems of the pandemic are very real, and we can't just wish them away. But we are imperfect creatures of habit and routine, and if we can accept just a bit more change at the margin - starting with our wallets - it can help us all.


Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

09/04/20 Trump is winning the vaccine debate with public health experts
07/01/20 Why Americans are having an emotional reaction to masks
05/20/20 Covid-19 will expose the ghosts in the U.S. economy
05/07/20 Are aliens visiting us? US military seems to think so
05/06/20 America's reopening will depend on one thing --- trust
04/22/20 How the covid-19 recession is like World War II
04/15/20 America is returning to 1781
04/08/20 Covid-19 is is upending everything for status seekers
03/17/20 The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment
01/28/20 Social Security isn't doomed for younger generations
01/08/20 Why 2020 is harder to predict than 2019 was
12/02/19 Equality is a mediocre goal so aim for progress
11/25/19 Inflation inequality creates winners and losers
11/09/19 OK kids. This boomer has had enough
10/20/19 Would you bet against Trump in 2020?
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
07/29/19 How your personality traits affect your paycheck
07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
05/28/19 How Dems actually are the ANTI-immigrant party
04/23/19 Want to help fight climate change? Have more children
03/22/19 America isn't as divided as it looks
03/12/19 The Twitter takeover of politics: You ain't seen nothing yet
03/04/19 How to tell which Dem dreams won't come true
02/07/19: Now the Dems want to end America's nuclear first strike option. How clueless is that?
01/29/19: The shutdown hit a lot of government workers --- hard. But, ultimately, who is responsible for their unfortunate circumstances?
12/12/18: The West is abusing its legal power to punish people or institutions that do things it doesn't like. It better stop
10/23/18: The US needs Saudi Arabia, and vice versa
10/19/18: The right finds the perfect weapon against the left
07/24/18: The drive for the perfect child gets a little scary
06/04/18: Side effects of the decline of men in labor market
05/14/18: Proving Marx's theories right
05/08/18: Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left
05/01/18: Virtual reality will make lives better ... mostly
04/16/18: It's hard to burst your political filter bubbleIt's hard to burst your political filter bubble
04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
04/05/18: Two American power centers are about to clash
03/22/18: We fear what we can't control about Uber and Facebook
03/08/18: How to stop the licen$ing insanity
01/10/18: Polarized Congress needs to bring back earmarks
12/27/17: The year when the Internet collides with reality
11/07/17: Would you blame the phone for Russian interference?
10/23/17: North Korea is playing a longer game than the US
10/12/17: Why conservatives should celebrate Thaler's Nobel
08/02/17: Too many of today's innovations are focused on solving problems rather than creating something new