One important lesson from political science and sociology is that public opinion often holds steady. This is because it is difficult to get individual people to change their minds. Instead, people tend to keep consistent views as “settled dispositions” over time, and mass opinion changes slowly as new people age into taking surveys and older people age out.
Sometimes public opinion does change quickly, though, and these rapid changes are worth our attention precisely because they are rare. For example, one of the most notable recent changes is the swing toward majority support for same-sex marriage in the United States in just the last decade.
That’s why a new finding is so interesting and so troubling: NORC is reporting a pretty big swing in self-reported happiness since the pandemic broke out using a new 2020 survey conducted in late May. Compared to earlier trends from the General Social Survey, fewer people are reporting they are “very happy,” optimism about the future is down, and feelings of isolation and loneliness are up. The Associated Press has dynamic charts here, and I made an open-access, creative commons version of one visualization using GSS data and NORC’s estimates:
As with any survey trend, we will need more data to get the true shape of the change and see whether it will persist over time. Despite this, one important point here is the consistency before the new 2020 data. Think about all the times aggregated happiness reports didn’t really change: we don’t see major shifts around September 11th, 2001, and there are only small changes around the Gulf War in 1990 or the 2008 financial crisis.
There is something reassuring about such a dramatic drop now, given this past resilience. If you’re feeling bad, you’re not alone. We have to remember that emotions are social. People have a remarkable ability to persist through all kinds of trying times, but that is often because they can connect with others for support. The unprecedented isolation of physical distancing and quarantine has a unique impact on our social relationships and, in turn, it could have a dramatic impact on our collective wellbeing. The first step to fixing this problem is facing it honestly.
Inspired by demographic facts you should know cold, “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images featuring quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.