The year was 1950, and America was a nation racked with uncertainty and fear. North Korean Communist forces invaded the South, and we were in the grips of another war. President Harry Truman placed America’s railroads under the control of the U.S. Army.
A Cold War with Russia by then had long settled in. On the homefront, the ugly era of McCarthyism was beginning. People were not concerned about a deadly virus falling from the sky so much as a devastating, annihilating bomb. The president approved the construction of the hydrogen bomb in response to this threat, and Albert Einstein warned that nuclear war could lead to “mutual destruction.”
Flash-forward to today. According to at least one new report, folks in the U.S. are more unhappy today than they were back then. Keep in mind that this conclusion was reached before the eruption of mass protests and the report that, as of June 23, more than 122,000 U.S. pandemic-caused deaths have occurred in the United States.
Called the COVID Response Tracking Study, the survey of 2,279 adults draws on nearly a half-century of research from the General Social Survey and was conducted May 21-29 with funding from the National Science Foundation. As reported by Time magazine, this periodic study has collected data on American attitudes and behaviors at least every other year since 1972.
According to the study (and not surprisingly), 2020 is proving to be one very rough year on the American psyche. Among some of its other findings, it shows that only 42% of Americans believe that when their children reach their age, their standard of living will be better.
As covered in a separate New York Times report, in May, citing a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the World Health Organization warned of “a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months.”
According to the COVID Response Tracking Study, about twice as many Americans report being lonely today compared with 2018. Commenting on the report, Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, told Time magazine that she was surprised that loneliness was not even more prevalent. “It isn’t as high as it could be,” she says. “People have figured out a way to connect with others. It’s not satisfactory, but people are managing to some extent.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has done happiness studies since the pandemic started, has even found some people to be slightly happier than last year.
“Human beings are remarkably resilient,” she reminded Time reporter Tamar Lee. “There’s lots and lots of evidence that we adapt to everything. We move forward,” she said.
While some health officials have forecast a steep rise in new mental health disorders, there are also others who believe the impact is not likely to last. According to a New York Times report, many psychiatrists and therapists who work with people in the wake of natural disasters believe surveys that ask people about their emotions to be poor predictors of lasting distress.
Dr. Steven Southwick is a professor of psychiatry at Yale University who has worked with survivors after numerous catastrophes, including mass shootings. “Very few people understand how resilient they really are until faced with extraordinary circumstances,” he recently explained to the Times. “One of our first jobs in these situations is to call attention to just that.”
When it comes to collective trauma of the chronic, disabling kind, many experts remain skeptical that this is what is occurring. Southwick goes on to point out that generalized anxiety disorder is defined, in part, by excessive anxiety for at least six months.
“A wave of new mental health disorders may indeed be on the way, especially if Covid-19 cases explode again late in the year, or the economic downturn deepens,” writes The New York Times’ Benedict Carey. “But the evidence so far says nothing persuasive about whether it will be a tsunami or a ripple.”
In examining this issue, water may be a perfect metaphor.
Bonnie Tsui is an investigative reporter who has spent the last several years writing a book about swimming titled “Why We Swim.” In a new editorial series in The New York Times about resilience in troubled times, she writes about what we can learn from the act of swimming, from both history and personal experience.
“At its most basic level, (swimming) is an act of perseverance,” she writes. “In these times of protest and pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what our bodies are capable of, and about the ways we work through fear and pain. Swimming is one of those ways.”
Think about it: When we are in over our head, we are either drowning, or we are swimming. “Even in the face of fear, one can aspire to buoyancy,” she writes. “Unlike most terrestrial mammals, we are not born with instinctive swimming abilities. We have to be taught,” she reminds us. “To be a swimmer is to be acquainted with fear, but not to give in to it.”
“It’s the older swimmers who truly have resilience,” she says. “As we get older, we all face the prospect of our bodies eroding out from under us. Swimming is the rare sport that you can keep doing, and do well, deep into your later years. … Resilience is about sticking your head in water every day, for an hour or more, year after year.”
“That’s the challenge right now — not to put your head down and ignore the world, but to put your head down and absorb it,” she concludes. “To remember how to float, in spite of the burdens you carry.”