Research Brief

COVID-19 negatively impacting well-being, say U.S. adults

Illustrations of people wearing masks.
Credit: Getty/Ada Yokota

Symptoms of depression are up and life satisfaction is down for U.S. adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by University of Minnesota researchers. The examination of nationwide data also found that an individual’s socioeconomic status — their income and education — play an important factor in their own sense of well-being.

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, compared self-reported data from a nationally representative sample of individuals before the pandemic in 2019 and again in April 2020. By that time, many states had initiated a series of public health strategies aimed at mitigating the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including restrictions on social gatherings and movement. It was also when the U.S. began seeing a significant downturn in the stock market. 

During the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020, the study found that:

  • across all socioeconomic categories, depressive symptoms increased and life satisfaction decreased;
  • those with higher incomes reported relatively fewer depressive symptoms and higher levels of life satisfaction during the pandemic; and
  • individuals with higher educational attainment reported a significantly larger increase in depressive symptoms and a sharper decline in life satisfaction.

“A higher income, for some, can provide some level of protection from a decline in mental health during a crisis like we are experiencing,” said study co-author Connie Wanberg, a professor in the Carlson School of Management. “However, we were unable to determine why people with more education had their well-being affected so much more significantly than others.”

The study further found that respondents' assessment of their own knowledge about COVID-19 contributed to less decrease in life satisfaction. Due to this, researchers state perception of having more COVID-19 knowledge isn't a viable explanation for why those with more education experienced a larger decline in well-being. Additionally, researchers found that educational attainment was not associated with job loss due to COVID-19.

“We ultimately speculated that people with more education may be used to having more psychological and material resources available, and report sharper well-being declines when these are threatened,” said co-author and Carlson School Ph.D. student Bori Csillag.  

Taken together, these findings showcase COVID-19’s impact is felt by all people.

“It is affecting people’s well-being, no matter their socioeconomic status,” said study co-author Betty Zhou, an associate professor in the Carlson School of Management. “There is a possibility that a further decline in well-being may have occurred since our initial research too.”

Additional co-authors are Richard P. Douglass, an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts, and Michael Pollard with the RAND Corporation. A portion of the data reported was provided by RAND and funded in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (R01AA025956).

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COVID-19 negatively impacting well-being, say U.S. adults
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