Opinion

How to be happy during a pandemic

  • Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero

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 US personal savings rates have spiked. In April, the rate exceeded 30 per cent. It has been falling, down to 19.5 per cent in June, and will probably fall farther yet. But it is still much higher than it was in the pre-Covid era, when it ranged from 3 per cent to 8 per cent.

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.

So think how you may 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 theatre 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 United States 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 US, owing 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 may 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 per cent, try 20 per cent or 25 per cent. Just dip into those savings.

You also should spend more time driving to see your friends. (If you have children at home, you may 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. 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 travelling. 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.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero