Is there a silver lining from the pandemic? Survey suggests yes!
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
Greene Economics Principals (Dr. Gretchen Greene, Rabia Ahmed, and Jeri Sawyer) with assistance from Karen Sullivan (economics student at UCLA), Megan Sawyer, and Dr. Patricia Atkinson (economics professor at Clark College, Vancouver, Washington)
While the devastation of the pandemic to our work lives, home lives, and day-to-day activities is difficult to overstate, the mere fact that we all had to make changes may have accelerated some lifestyle shifts that were for the better. With this unfortunate shock to our world, we had to break a lot of our habits – something that is very hard to do without substantial effort. In the fall of 2020, Greene Economics launched an informal survey about how the pandemic had changed people’s lifestyles, and whether any of these changes would turn out to have positive impacts. The survey explored potential improvements in home life, work life, and financial and physical health. The survey – while not from a statistically random sample – helps demonstrate how change from the pandemic has led to some improvements along with the difficulty in our lives. Below is some background information on what motivated this survey, followed by a summary of survey results. We welcome your comments and feedback on these results and ideas!
Rationale for the Survey
Research suggests that people do not choose to change their lifestyle habits very often. In psychology, this adverse reaction to change is known as the “status quo bias.” The status quo bias is described as an emotional preference for the current state of affairs in one’s life and their surrounding environment. This preference for one’s baseline (that is, their current reference point to their status quo) does not only relate to the “larger” details of one’s life such as their career, home, physical location, and familial status, but also includes “smaller” details such as their eating habits, socializing habits, and the stores they choose to shop at. Status quo bias, or the preference for the current, is a non-rational cognitive process because it relies more on emotional and habit-forming reactions rather than rational thought. Studies also show that loss aversion (the fear or resistance to anything one perceives as loss or having a potential for loss) leads to a greater regret for action than inaction. In other words, more regret is experienced when we change our usual routine than when we maintain it. As a result, we tend to overemphasize the loss created by a change and are motivated to avoid the perceived risk of that loss by maintaining our current or past decisions.
Suddenly, COVID-19 comes in and forces all of us to change our habits whether or not we chose to do so! In order to prevent the spread of the virus, many people began to work from home, and others lost their jobs completely – both imposing new decisions about work, life, and day to day survival. As restaurants, stores, and gyms closed, people were forced to spend more time at home and adapt to new ways of socializing, eating, and exercising. Due in part to status quo bias, some people have resisted social distancing guidance, mask laws, and travel recommendations. Similarly, status quo bias may explain why some governments are willing to ignore warnings even among devastating predictions from public health officials. The question of whether we will go back to our old habits after the pandemic or continue with our new habits can help us understand the degree to which status quo bias has inhibited improved lifestyle and work choices over the years. Some large corporations, such as Facebook, have already announced they will remain virtual following the pandemic, suggesting that remote workplaces may remain the new normal for some following the pandemic. However, social events such as eating at restaurants and going on trips are more likely to move back toward the pre-COVID normal once the virus is contained enough to do so, especially given that many people and business owners continue to demand for them to be allowed to open even amid the pandemic. Part of the question over whether people will continue their new normal or revert to their old normal seems to rely on the amount of change that the pandemic created for them personally, how they perceive their new habits vs their old habits, and what they prioritize enough to make a change despite the status quo bias inclination toward our usual. Here are the results:
1. Most respondents hope to maintain at least some elements of their work life (or school life) that have been developed during the pandemic. This supports the idea that when we are forced to change our habits, we may find new ways of doing things that are preferable.
To clarify, these results may also reflect the preference for working from home when many employers may not continue to offer that option for workers once it is safe to return to the workplace. One respondent made a thoughtful comment related to this idea, writing, “I hope office jobs start to move in the direction of work-from-home models so that office spaces can be reclaimed by other businesses or turned into low-income housing.” Thanks much for that innovative idea!
2. Some relationships between families and housemates have improved as a result of the pandemic.
About 11% of respondents answered that someone in their family had to move or relocate due to the pandemic, suggesting a significant disruption in lifestyles. But on a positive note, while just 10% percent of respondents said that their home lives had improved overall, 26% said their relationships with the people in their household had improved. This raises the question of whether spending more time with family and housemates tends to improve relationships. Or maybe this points to a mental tendency is to ‘make the best’ of a difficult situation and at least perceive that things are not so bad (see #5 below).
3. When asked how people were spending their time, typically people identified five activities where more time was spent, and only three related to spending less time.
So… do we have more time overall? The most common responses to activities that people found themselves spending more time with, “On my phone,” “with family members living in the same house,” “Watching TV,” “Reading,” “On social media,” and “Gardening and home improvement projects” all received more than a 43% response. Closely following were “Paying attention to news” and “Doing outdoor activities” with 41% response and 39% respectively. There was no surprise that respondents overwhelmingly said they were spending less time traveling (69%) and “With friends and loved ones,” at 54%.
4. Of those who plan to maintain at least some of their pandemic cooking and eating habits after the pandemic has slowed down, the vast majority were cooking more at home during the pandemic.
A couple of questions highlight how we may change our habits involuntarily, but then discover that the new habit is preferable to the old. Regarding food preparation, 67% of respondents reported that during the pandemic they had to cook more at home. But then only 22% of respondents reported that after the pandemic they would resume their earlier habits regarding eating out versus cooking at home.
5. Maybe our social lives are not as essential to happiness as we thought.
We asked respondents about their social lives, their happiness, and their overall mental health. With 59% reporting that their social lives had become more difficult, only about one third of respondents reported that their level of personal happiness had declined since the pandemic, and about the same reported that their mental health had declined. The graphic summarizes results for happiness, mental health, and social life.
6. A large majority increased or maintained their income, while 39% decreased expenditures. This suggests an increase in savings, but 48% answered that due to the pandemic, they have greater concerns about financial security.
Most respondents (53%) said that their income had stayed the same, with 16% reporting an increase and 21% reporting a decrease in income. But 39% of respondents reported that expenditures had decreased, with only 17% reporting an increase in expenditures and 28% reported no change. Overall, survey respondents represent a larger share of women, younger people (20 to 29), middle-aged people, and slightly higher income than average for the U.S. Hence this points to a somewhat favorable financial situation for these groups. Still, when asked about their concern for their own future financial security, a remarkable 48% responded that they have greater concerns about their own financial security.
7. The pandemic had caused 70% of respondents to want to take better care of their physical health - but maybe we always plan to be healthier in the future?
With some respondents reporting increased time exercising, and some less; some reporting more outdoor activities and some less (see item #3), it is not surprising to see that 28% reported their physical health had deteriorated, while 21% reported their physical health had improved, and 31% reported no change in physical health.
Only 6% had ever tested positive for COVID-19 when they completed the survey, but 48% said that someone in their close circle of family and friends had tested positive. Also, when asked whether the pandemic had in turn caused them to think differently about their health insurance choices, 33% said that it had.
The health insurance result might reflect the stark reality that getting sick can be costly both in terms of health care costs and income losses. This could have triggered a general recognition that staying healthier can help avoid both financial and health risks.
What do we take from this? First, it seems that the survey respondents were remarkably resilient to the changes in their lives. Most respondents had suffered declines in the quality of their work lives, home lives, and certainly social lives. But balancing gains and losses were generally seen in nearly all subject areas – home life, work life, and happiness/health/social lives. This hints that the unexpected change of habits resulted in some improvements that could be carried into our post-pandemic lives.
Might other habits warrant reconsideration? Could the potential reward of doing things differently outweigh the comfort of our status quo armchairs? Habits, while building efficiencies in our daily routines, may also constrain our capacity to innovate and find new ways to solve problems and build strengths. Perhaps this momentary review of our lives imposed by the pandemic can give us the momentum and courage to review other aspects of our lives – from committing to that workout schedule, to taking steps to mitigate climate change, to reconsidering how to shape our communities. The pandemic may have helped us adhere to the wise counsel from 19th century writer Mark Twain, and moment by moment, work to revise our old habits, structuring our new habits in alignment with our 21st century goals.
Moment by moment, you need to live with awareness and structure the habits that you include or exclude in your days.
More detailed survey results and analyses are available here.
 Samuelson, W.; Zeckhauser, R. 1988. Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1: 7–59.  Ibid.  Korobkin, R. 1997. The Status Quo Bias and Contract Default Rules" (PDF). Cornell Law Review. 83: 608–687.  Gates, B. 2018. Innovation for Pandemics. N Engl J Med 2018;378:2057-60