Happier people are more likely to comply with social distancing and shielding at home orders to help suppress the spread of COVID-19. This is the key finding from a new working paper from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), University of Oxford, and University College London (UCL).
Using global surveys covering more than 119,000 adults across 35 countries, including the UK, the authors studied people’s happiness and their compliance with lockdown rules. Compliance behaviour was measured using geographical data from Google on participants’ smart phones as well as self-reported data from participants on their behaviour. Happiness levels were self-reported by participants and tracked over time.
The researchers found that past and present happiness makes people more likely to comply with lockdown restrictions. This remains the case regardless of whether happiness is measured as life satisfaction, positive or negative mood, or how worthwhile things in life feel.
Likewise, people who report negative mood or a loss of happiness are less likely to comply with lockdown measures.
The authors suggest that one explanation for these findings could be due to expected utility theory: people who are happier and enjoy life have more to lose through non-compliance with rules. Therefore, they are more compliant.
When the researchers then explored in more detail the motives for compliance behaviour, they found suggestive evidence that older people and those who have pre-existing medical conditions seemed to be predominantly motivated by risk avoidance. The picture for younger people seems to be motivated by a combination of risk avoidance and pro-sociality towards others, although the findings on younger people are less clear and probably more context specific.
Policymakers can use these findings for more effective policy design, targeting, and communication, particularly for the most vulnerable. This could include interventions aimed directly at raising mental wellbeing or designing communications which target the underlying reasons why people comply or not with orders during lockdowns.
Lead author, Dr Chris Krekel from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE said: “Our findings from a large number of survey respondents across a large number of countries clearly show a positive relationship between happiness and compliance behaviour during COVID-19 lockdowns. A stronger focus on wellbeing in policy-making could, therefore, help increase compliance with some of the toughest measures and challenges of our time.”