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Are happier people more likely to observe Covid lockdown rules?

National lockdowns have been a key weapon in the battle against Covid-19, and people’s willingness to comply with such measures is key to their success.

But what are the factors that lead the public to trust authorities and follow instructions on things like hand-washing and distancing? How do governments produce public information campaigns that resonate with individuals at a time when their personal freedoms are being restricted? Recent research has shown that the role of happiness and wellbeing could be one key factor.

The research, published in a new working paper co-authored by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, associate professor of economics and strategy at Saïd Business School, with Christian Krekel and Sarah Swanke from the London School of Economics and Daisy Fancourt from University College London, used three large-scale surveys to investigate whether happier people were more willing to take heed of government messages.

It found a positive correlation between happiness and compliance behaviour, a result that could potentially have implications for policymakers.

People who said they were happier were found to be more likely to report adherence to preventative health measures such as washing hands, wearing face-masks and avoiding crowded areas. The survey was international in scope, using reports from more than 39,000 respondents in 20 countries. It found that a one-point increase in life evaluation (a wellbeing measure rated on a zero-to-ten scale) increased respondents' willingness to follow guidance by about one percentage point.

The association between personal contentment and compliance also emerged from a separate survey that formed part of the study, which revealed that happy people would be more willing to self-isolate for seven days if told to do so by the government. This survey – which used a novel panel of 30,000 people in University College London’s Covid-19 Social Survey in the UK – also found that people who reported higher levels of happiness were more likely to spend some weekdays at home, rather than in their workplace.

Location was another factor which played a role in willingness to comply. A third survey in the study found that people who lived in areas associated with higher levels of happiness in 2019 spent more time in residential areas, rather than in retail/recreation, travelling or workplaces. This survey was also international and used nationally representative cross-section data on about 50,000 respondents in 49 countries.

For older people...avoiding risk was a decisive factor when deciding whether to obey official rules.

But what of unhappy people? Do the results emerging from the three surveys show they are less compliant? ‘Negative affect’ (emotional distress, measured by how anxious people are) in 2019 was associated with lower regional-level compliance behaviour in 2020. This could help explain the anti-lockdown protests and reluctance bias surrounding vaccination that many countries have experienced in recent months.

The research also revealed differences related to age demographics and levels of health. For older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions who were at higher risk of Covid-19 complications, avoiding risk was a decisive factor when deciding whether to obey official rules and advice.

The results were more mixed when it came to the motives of younger and healthier people. During the first half of the British lockdown (from late-March until mid-April 2020), happiness was associated with increased compliance for these groups. Yet by May, as time went on and fatigue and unhappiness increased, compliance dropped too.

The practical implications of the findings overall might include policymakers deciding to develop interventions aimed at raising public wellbeing during lockdowns, or healthcare authorities targeting groups prone to low wellbeing levels with appropriately crafted policy communication, both potential ways of encouraging increased compliance during tough times.


More information: Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Associate Professor of Economics and Strategy and Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre.