What Does the Future Hold?

James W. Pennebaker and Ashwini Ashokkumar, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

It’s now the middle of May 2020. Because of the COVID crisis, much of the world has been in full or partial lockdown for two months, the global economy has been battered, and unemployment in the U.S. has reached about 15% — the worst rate since the Great Depression.

Worldwide, people are trying to adapt to the radical changes to their everyday lives. Many are working remotely. Most can’t visit their extended family, their neighbors, their local restaurants, or bars. Instead, they’re spending time on social media, watching movies, playing games, homeschooling their children, and sometimes going a little crazy.

In the middle of this crisis, there’s a clamor of contradictory ideas. Government officials, health experts, businesses, and private citizens disagree about when and how the crisis will end and, once it ends, what lies ahead. Some eagerly anticipate a return to greater freedom and economic recovery. Others report increased levels of fear, anxiety, and anger, worrying that the virus will resurge. Because of the cacophony of voices and ideas about something so unknown, a large segment of society doesn’t know what to believe.

Historians point out that pandemics often create social change, and journalists speculate whether COVID will change policy and social dynamics in the U.S. The whole world is grappling with the same critical questions: What will daily life be like when COVID is gone? Will COVID change how we think and act in the future or will we revert to life as it was before? How much economic destruction and unemployment will lie in its wake?

We are trying to assess people’s opinions about these questions. In a recent survey (Version 3 of the Pandemic Project survey), we asked about 2,500 people how they thought their lives would be after 1-2 years, once the pandemic has ended.

We wanted to know how people thought they would change some of their most fundamental behaviors related to their lifestyle, work, and social life. For each behavior, they specified how much more or less they expected to engage in that behavior, in response to the following prompt:

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The results are striking. A large proportion of respondents expected COVID to change their lifestyle and daily behaviors. As you can see in the figure, about 30-50% of the sample expected to change their own activities in meaningful ways once the threat of the corona virus passed.

Figure 1. Percentage of people who will do more of the behavior (in green) and less of the behavior (in orange). Those who will maintain the same level as before COVID are not shown. So, for example, 48.9% of the entire sample checked that they would save money moderately or much more than before COVID whereas only 3.5% claimed they would likely save less money. Statistically, 47.6% responded that they would save money at about the same rate as before COVID. The survey was completed between May 1-14, 2020 (methodological details).

People complain about feeling trapped and lonely in their houses during the lockdown, but, when asked about the future, they remain connected to the security and comfort of their homes. Many appear reluctant to risk visiting crowded places or even straying too far away from their front doors. Fully 36 percent report they will be less likely to venture out to restaurants, bars, and movie theaters in the 1-2 years after COVID. Only about 9 percent expect to go out more than before the outbreak started. About 15% say they will attend religious services at lower rates and roughly 29% say they will travel to distant locations at lower rates than pre-COVID (although 18 percent will travel more).

Beyond their predictions of travel, people’s cautious states of mind are shaping their general approach to the future. They are no longer charmed by the idea of a carefree exotic life. Fewer than 10% claim they will lead more exotic and carefree lives, while almost 29% say they will change their lifestyle to be less wild and more careful.

In the same vein, people want to better prepare for unexpected events and crises in the future. About 49% of the sample plans to save more money. People expect to live healthier, more connected lives, which would presumably provide them a buffer against future threats. About 38% of the sample report they would change their lives in healthy ways. The majority of the sample say they would maintain better work-life balance. Similarly, over 30 percent would actively try to spend more time with family and friends.

The COVID crisis also appears to have affected the ways most people think about technology. Their experiences with Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and other platforms are undoubtedly causing them to reevaluate the ways they work, learn, and shop. Over 30% of the sample expects to work from home, get educated online, and use delivery services more than pre-COVID. In open-ended survey responses, some report the advantages of technological advances: they save time by avoiding commuting and are more productive in their jobs.

Possible economic implications. Assuming people have some insight into their future behaviors, the surveys portend significant changes in U.S. spending patterns. If these findings hold true, there could be profound changes in our culture:

  • Living more cautious lives. Since the last big recession in 2008, the U.S. and much of the world economy has been growing at an impressive rate. During these years, interest rates have been extremely low, which has discouraged people from saving their money. But the pandemic has shaken the people in our surveys to an alarming degree. The enormous loss of jobs, drops in the stock markets, and the long term uncertainty about the world economy are adding to feelings of insecurity. If past depressions and recessions are any guide, we can expect people to save what money they can and turn more to family and close friends for comfort and support. After being buffeted by unpredictable events, our respondents are telling us that they want to live safer and more predictable lives closer to home, with family and friends nearby and more money in the bank.
  • Shifting the nature of work. The transformative power of online communication platforms will likely have a lasting impact. Based on the numbers, many jobs can actually be done more efficiently by people at home. Occasional office meetings will be needed but does a company really need to have an entire building that remains empty 80 percent of working hours? What are the implications of cutting 1-2 hours of each person’s daily commute?

Along similar lines, one could argue that business travel may not be needed in the ways of the past. Recently, the organizers of a small conference that our group of researchers was planning to attend canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, the conference was conducted virtually. The 2-day meeting was reduced to one day and was a success. The sponsoring agency saved money and all the participants avoided a day of travel each way. (We didn’t, however, get the opportunity of enjoying green chile enchiladas in Santa Fe).

  • Rethinking online education. Online classes have gotten a bum rap by teachers and students over the last few years. Many university faculty and students have long been suspicious and even contemptuous of online courses. After two full months of classes delivered digitally, some are developing more favorable views of the online approach while others remain wary. One one hand, online education can be simultaneously provided to a large number of students, and when done well, it has the potential to be more effective than traditional teaching. At the same time, online education is less accessible to low-income groups, possibly worsening socioeconomic inequalities. For education to realistically go digital in the long term, the gaps in internet access would need to be filled.

We are all quite good at predicting the future; all we lack is accuracy. Right now, many of us are looking out our windows and imagining a different life compared to our current circumstances. The problem is that we don’t know what our circumstances will be in a year from now.

Perhaps what is most surprising is that, at most any other time, if you asked people what they might do if they won a million dollars, got a big promotion, or were told by their boss to take the year off with full pay, we suspect that a large number of people would likely endorse having a more exotic and carefree life. It’s hard to imagine that a very large number would say they would expect to embark on a less exotic life.

But this is not any other time. It’s the middle of May 2020. Hopefully, in a year from now, the world will be more predictable and understandable and we will be able to better understand how we will live in the future.

Locked indoors: What we do daily is related to mental health

Ashwini Ashokkumar and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Some preliminary results are presented from an online survey of 5,626 American and Canadian respondents from the week of March 19-27, which was a week after the first shelter-in-place guidelines were imposed. Some of the noteworthy findings from the survey include:

  • On average, respondents spent approximately 22 hours in their home or a home of a friend or family member, about 1.5 hours outside, and about 20-30 minutes in commercial establishments such as grocery stores.
  • In the home, people reported spending 5.6 hours watching movies, reading, learning new skills, and other leisure activities; 4.3 hours cooking, eating, cleaning, and house and yard work; 3.9 hours on social media (Facebook, Twitter, email, texting); 3.7 hours on work-related tasks; and almost an hour exercising.
  • Most social media time tended to be devoted to watching, learning, and communicating with others about COVID. In fact, approximately 17 percent of the sample was immersed in COVID-19 topics for at least 7 hours of their day. The more people are exposed to COVID-related information, the more depressed and lonely they felt, and the more alcohol they consumed.
  • Overall, those who are coping the best with the COVID outbreak are people who are exercising at least 30 minutes a day, going outdoors, and talking with at least two friends or family members face to face or virtually.
  • Those who are having the most difficult time coping tend to spend at least 5 hours or more watching television or movies, playing video games, or engaging in social media unrelated to COVID.

Introduction and overview

The Pandemic Project is seeking to track and understand people’s everyday social and psychological states over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. Social scientists have long been interested in disasters such as 9/11, the Columbine and other massacres, the Loma Prieta and other earthquakes, wildfires, assassinations, etc. In virtually all other upheavals, people’s natural reactions have been to get together, talk, hug, and cry. Many disaster victims have reported the power of being with others to share their fears, sadness, anger, and other emotions during and after the events. COVID-19 is unique in requiring people to stay locked in their own homes and to avoid human contact with others.

From a social science perspective, COVID-19 has the elements of a perfect storm. It is a deadly disease with no cure that is difficult to track. It is an invisible virus that is silently and mysteriously transferred from person to person without their knowledge, causing terror around the world. All of us, then, are potential victims and agents of the disease. The only prevention to help the loss of life is to avoid exposure to the virus by avoiding social contact. And social contact is one of the only proven remedies for reducing anxiety and depression. Locking down entire populations changes everything about daily life — including what people do with their time, the ways they interact with their friends and family, how they work and play. This also means that the economy is on the brink of a major downturn, even collapse, causing millions to lose jobs and/or incur huge financial losses.

During the first weeks of the outbreak and quarantine, only about 15 percent of people in our research knew of anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID and about 1 percent knew someone who had died. Nevertheless, COVID-19 was a common topic of most conversations, emails, or social media posts, reflecting the enormous social psychological effects of the crisis..

COVID-19 is an overwhelming social psychological phenomenon. How are people connecting with one another? How will they change in the weeks and months ahead? What coping methods are effective and ineffective? These are the questions that the Pandemic Project seeks to answer. In this first paper, we focus on how people are spending their time in their new lives starting about a week after the first shelter-in-place recommendations/requests/orders were announced. Our findings are based on results of an online sample of 5,626 people, mostly women (80.5%), with a college degree (79.8%), who were employed full time (53%), and who averaged 43 years of age. (For details of the study, click here)

How are people spending their time?

The most striking aspect of the COVID outbreak is that the vast majority of the world population stopped their daily routines and remained in their houses for weeks at a time. Most people outside the health care sector and other essential services either worked from home or were furloughed or laid off from their jobs. Restaurants, bars, and other gathering places were closed. In the few locations where groups of people were allowed (grocery stores, pharmacies, U.S. gun stores, and other essential services), social distancing norms were mandated. Given the new movement restrictions, much of the world’s population had to establish completely new daily routines.

In the survey, we asked participants how and where they had spent their previous 24 hours. Overall, the average person spent approximately 22 hours either at their own residence or the residence of a family member or friend. The remaining two hours were largely spent either outdoors or at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Daily activities

Participants were asked how much time they spent on a range of activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey. The five primary categories of interest included work, daily household routines, leisure activities, social media, and exercising.

As you can see in the first figure, people spent the most time on leisure activities such as reading, playing video games, watching movies or TV or learning new skills, averaging 5.6 hours per day. About 21% of the sample reported spending over 8 hours on leisure activities.

Daily routines such as eating, cooking, chores, and house maintenance was the second most frequent category, taking up 4.2 hours, indicating that people are using their time to organize their homes. This was not true of all people; about 19% of the sample spent less than 2 hours on daily routines.

Figure 1. Average time spent on various activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey

National time-use studies find that the average American usually spends about 2.1 hours each day on social media. In our sample, the number was almost twice that — about 3.9 hours per day. In fact, over 11% of the sample spent more than 8 hours on social media! Previous reports that over 50% of Americans use social media to get their news suggest that the current spike reflects an increase in consumption of news related to COVID.

Interestingly, people were spending only about 3.7 hours working remotely from home. Respondents who were not students and who were employed at the time of completing the survey worked for about 4.8 hours, marking a 33% drop from the average work hours for Americans pre-COVID.

Overall, our respondents spent about 45 minutes each day exercising. About 32% of the sample did not exercise at all. Those who did averaged one hour and 12 minutes exercising.

Depression, loneliness, and alcohol use

Large-scale upheavals, both natural and manmade, are followed by spikes in stress, anxiety, and depression that sometimes last several months after the event. The most powerful antidote to anxiety is social support. People usually cling to their loved ones during times of crisis. Being forced to stay apart presumably exacerbates the mental health problems resulting from the current crisis.

Respondents provided estimates of how long in their previous day they experienced feelings of depression and isolation, and the amount of time they consumed alcohol or other recreational substances. In our sample, about 30.2% reported feeling depressed for over an hour in the previous day, and about 14.8% experienced such feelings for over 3 hours (See Figure 2). The amount of time people felt alone was similar. About 20 percent of respondents reported drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs for 1-3 hours or more in the previous day. The high numbers suggest that COVID may be having a meaningful impact on mental health.

Figure 2. Number of depressed hours in the previous day reported by survey respondents

Exposure to COVID-related information

Being exposed to traumatic images on television, social media, or in print may boost levels of fear, concerns about the future, and poorer coping. Some of the most compelling evidence for the dangers of repeated exposure to disturbing images has been reported by Roxane Silver and her colleagues at the University of California-Irvine. Over her career, she has studied people’s reactions to watching coverage of wildfires, the 9/11 attacks, beheadings, school shootings, and other horrifying events. Time after time, she has demonstrated that the more exposure people have to violent images, the more likely they will show signs of distress — often for weeks or months. Within days of orders for people to self-isolate in North America, Silver warned about the dangers of watching too much media coverage of the Coronavirus. She was right.

Our respondents estimated the time they spent reading about, watching, or communicating information about COVID. As you can see in the graph, over 45% of the sample reported spending at least 3 hours in their previous day dealing with COVID-related information, and about 17% spent 8 hours or more.

Figure 3. Number of hours in the previous day that survey respondents spent dealing with COVID-related information

What are the links between watching, reading, or talking about COVID and mental health?

Is it unhealthy to become immersed in watching and thinking about the COVID crisis? We asked people how worried they were about getting infected by the virus, dying from it, infecting others, and so on. Overall, people who spent more time dealing with COVID-related information reported higher levels of COVID-related worries.

More striking is that exposure to COVID-related information is associated with feelings of depression. Similar patterns are observed for feelings of loneliness and alcohol use.

Figure 4. People who spent more time dealing with COVID related information spent more hours feeling depressed.

Warning: we cannot be sure from our analyses whether dealing with COVID-related information causes depression. Our findings are correlational and do not provide information regarding the cause. It is equally possible that people who are more prone to depressive moods seek out COVID-related information. In fact, some compelling research on depression by Christopher Beevers and his colleagues who are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin find that people who are depressed often seek out negative and threatening information. Consequently, our findings may be showing that depressed people are driven to find COVID-related information more than others. However, other research suggests that being exposed to frightening and depressing information can make people more afraid and depressed. Can avoiding excessive news coverage of the COVID-19 help improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression and loneliness? Our research can’t answer that question. However, you can figure out the answer yourself. If you are feeling anxious, afraid, or depressed and you are watching more than 3 hours of COVID news each day, try reducing your intake of COVID information and see if you feel better.

What other activities are related to well-being?

Of all the factors we have studied so far, exposure to COVID-related information is most strongly related to depression and loneliness, and, by extension the lowest levels of well-being. The analyses of our first wave of data collection point to other correlates of well-being worth considering. Recall that we asked people to estimate the number of hours they had spent on a variety of tasks in the 24 hours prior to completing the survey. We then compared how they used their time with a crude measure of well-being (the total number of hours people were free of feelings of depression and loneliness).

Spend a minute and think about the numbers in the table below. The three activities at the top are all associated with low well-being (and higher feelings of depression and loneliness). As a comparison, being immersed in COVID-related news and conversation is correlated about -.23 with well-being. Interestingly, the more time that people engaged in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), even when this did not involve dealing with COVID-related information, the lower was their well-being. Similarly, lower well-being is correlated with watching a great deal of television and playing video games (i.e., over 5 hours). These effects are not related to people’s age or their gender.

The more satisfying results tell us what kinds of behaviors are associated with greater well-being among our respondents. The three most robust dimensions are going outside, exercising, and talking with friends and family (both face to face and virtually by phone, email, or Zoom or other video).

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*A negative correlation indicates a reverse relationship. So, for example, the people who spent more hours on social media tended to have the lowest scores on well-being. Conversely, the more hours that people spent outside, the higher their well-being.

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing reports on more analyses. How do individual differences in gender, age, ethnicity, education level, and political beliefs shape how people are coping with the COVID crisis? What are the psychological impacts on health workers? Is COVID bringing us together or tearing us apart? To receive updates, follow this blog.

Note to researchers: All the analyses presented in this report are preliminary. All effects presented are significant at p < .001 and were replicated in a Prolific sample of ~450 participants.