In January 2020, a long-running Gallup poll found 90 percent of American respondents broadly satisfied with their lives, the highest quotient of contentment in nearly a half-century of polling.
And then, the pandemic hit.
Much has been said about the pall of ennui that settled over the nation in the months after that midwinter poll as COVID-19 upended society. By the spring of 2020, a benchmark University of Chicago survey found American happiness at the lowest ebb in five decades.
Taken together, the two polls suggest a remarkable narrative: In the span of a few months, America’s collective happiness plummeted from a historic high to a record low.
“We were doing fairly well before the pandemic,” said Fallon Goodman, an assistant professor of psychology at George Washington University who studies human resilience. “We had the start of a new year. There was a renewed sense of hope … And then those things were taken away from us.”
The pandemic interrupted a half-decade run of remarkable contentedness in American life, according to Gallup polls, which have measured personal satisfaction since 1979.
Every year or two, pollsters ask Americans if they are satisfied or dissatisfied with “the way things are going” in their lives. The share of satisfied Americans sank below 80 percent after the Great Recession, rebounded to 85 percent in 2015 and rose to 90 percent at the turn of 2020.
And why was America so happy in January 2020?
All was not well in American society. Tensions simmered between the United States and Iran over the lingering U.S. presence in Iraq. The nation recoiled from several mass shootings amid an ongoing trend toward large-scale gun violence. On Jan. 21, health authorities announced the first domestic case of a new and potentially lethal virus.
Yet, to most Americans, those problems felt far away. By and large, at the start of 2020, life was good.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 29,000 in mid-January, an all-time high. Unemployment fell to 3.5 percent, the lowest rate in half a century. President Trump’s approval rating rose to 49 percent in Gallup polling, the highest it would ever go.
Trump ranked among the most divisive American presidents of modern times. But 2020 was an election year, and his fiercest detractors glimpsed a light at the end of the electoral tunnel.
“Just before the pandemic, I think there were a lot of people in the United States who were very satisfied with many aspects of their life,” said John Stuhr, distinguished professor of philosophy and American studies at Emory University. “And there were other people who were expecting changes for the good.”
No one, perhaps, could have predicted what 2020 held in store for the American public. COVID would kill 350,000 people that year, almost single-handedly lowering U.S. life expectancy by two years. Millions of Americans sheltered in their homes for months on end, canceling vacations and conferences and family gatherings, wearing masks in public for the first time since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
The jobless rate spiked to nearly 15 percent in April, the worst since the Great Depression. The Dow plummeted below 20,000, shedding a third of its value.
In May, researchers at the University of Chicago’s NORC research organization found Americans’ happiness at its lowest level in 50 years of polling. The share of adults who termed themselves “very happy” plunged to 14 percent.
Researchers found parallels between COVID and two other crises of the modern age: the 9/11 terror attacks and the Kennedy assassination. In all three national tragedies, people reported trouble sleeping, forgetfulness, rapid heartbeats and flashes of temper. More than one-quarter of respondents told surveyors the pandemic made them feel like getting drunk.
But Americans bounced back quickly from the pandemic’s darkest hours. By January 2021, when Gallup conducted its next poll, 82 percent of respondents reported satisfied lives. The first COVID vaccines had rolled out, and the nation had a new president.
This January, 83 percent of American respondents reported satisfaction with their personal lives. That figure is about average across several decades of polling. The Gallup measure has dipped below 80 percent only on occasion — mostly during times of recession.
Happiness is a fairly stable commodity in American life, researchers say, a quality reflected in the NORC survey and others. That’s why the polls don’t generally make headlines.
“When you look since the ’50s, the percentage of Americans who say they’re happy barely budges,” said Anthony Ahrens, a psychology professor at American University.
“Humans adapt. So, just as with the weather, we get used to the cold or we get used to the warm. When our economic circumstances or political circumstances change, we usually figure out a way to make things work. Obviously, not everybody. Some people suffer.”
Happiness and satisfaction are not the same thing; the differences matter more to philosophers and psychologists and less to respondents in a survey, who tend to react to either term on an emotional level.
The Gallup satisfaction survey helpfully enumerates several facets of human contentment. In the 2023 survey, Gallup found 90 percent of Americans satisfied with their family life, 87 percent happy with their job, 84 percent pleased with their community.
Only 76 percent voiced satisfaction with their standard of living and 71 percent with their income, illustrating the toll of nagging inflation and rising interest rates.
One long-running study of human happiness, conducted by researchers at Harvard, found that genetics determine roughly half of one’s chances for happiness. Much of the rest depends on connections with family, friends and social networks.
Many of those relationships suffered during the pandemic. NORC researchers found that half of Americans felt isolated in the spring of 2020. Respondents reported feeling “left out” and lacking companionship at much higher levels than two years earlier.
Insecurity can breed unhappiness, Stuhr said, and the pandemic introduced a strong note of uncertainty into American life.
“People were vulnerable, obviously, in terms of their own health,” he said. “For many people, they were vulnerable in terms of their jobs. Many of them were vulnerable in terms of their housing. Before the vaccines, there was a lot of uncertainty about, ‘How will we deal with this?’”
Happiness is also relative. One reason Americans report broad satisfaction on surveys is their collective sense that things could always be worse. Among the global horrors of 2023: a lingering war in Ukraine and a catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria.
“People look around,” Stuhr said, “and they think, ‘There are many, many people in the world I wouldn’t want to trade places with.”