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  • Writer's pictureGiulia Zoppolat

Love in the Time of COVID project – a 9 month update

Nine months have now passed since the “Love in the Time of COVID” project launched, just two weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March. In these nine months, more than 5000 people from 57 different countries have shared their experiences with us, repeatedly answering questions about their emotional and relational life. Thanks to their time and dedication to the project, we now know more about how people are connecting, relating, and coping over the course of the pandemic. With this post, we would like to offer an update and a little overview of the project.

This post is also a thank you to our participants who continue to selflessly dedicate their time to this important study. None of this would be possible without your contribution!

How have people been doing since we launched the “Love in the Time of COVID” project in March 2020?

It comes as no surprise that people’s lives have been impacted by the pandemic. Among all respondents, the overwhelming majority (88%) indicated that their lifestyle had considerably changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic with only 12% of people reporting no changes to their lifestyle. But how were people reacting emotionally to these changes? At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were asked how distressed they had been feeling, most said they were “a little distressed.” The second most common response, however, was “quite a bit distressed.” This was not surprising, as people in great numbers all over the world were starting to deal with new difficult circumstances, such as the sudden loss of employment and social isolation. In our survey alone, over 300 people reported losing their job due to situations related to the pandemic, almost 40% stated that their financial situation had been negatively impacted by it, and the majority had not seen a friend in person for the two weeks before the first survey. These factors are all important ingredients for emotional distress.

Fast forward three months later, and the situation looks a bit different. While many people were still feeling distressed, most people indicated that they were “a little bit distressed” or “very slightly or not at all distressed.” In other words, people were feeling less distressed than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

Were people less distressed because they thought the end of the pandemic was in sight? No. When we first asked in March how long they thought the pandemic would last, most thought it would last six months to one year. The second most common response was that the pandemic would last three months. But when we asked them again, three months later, the most common response was that the pandemic would last one to two years, followed again by six months to one-year. In other words, people expected the pandemic to last much longer than they originally thought, but were less distressed than they were at the beginning. This might suggest that people are emotionally coping with their new circumstances, despite the finish line looking farther away.

Why would people be both less distressed and at the same time think the pandemic would last longer than originally anticipated? We don’t yet have an answer to this question, but there are likely a variety of factors at play. For example, advances in the scientific and medical understanding of the virus and possible treatments may have alleviated some fears and concerns. Another possible reason for why people seem to be doing emotionally better is that humans are incredibly resilient beings and have an astonishing capacity to face hardships in life, from the smallest to the most extreme. We are able to quickly adapt to new and difficult circumstances. During the pandemic, people may have experienced the initial distress and hardship due to things like loss of incomes, restricted movement, health worries, difficulty in planning for the future, but quickly employed various strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation. For example, people migrated in great numbers towards online platforms to continue connecting with family and friends while social distancing, and also spent considerably more time out in nature than before the pandemic. Indeed, our results show that 25% of people reported spending no time outdoors at the onset of the pandemic, whereas only 6% reported not spending any time outdoors three months later. Given the importance of social ties and nature to our well-being, people seemed to be employing helpful strategies during stressful times. Another reason people may be feeling less distressed over time is that people have a tendency to become less alarmed by risks as time goes on, even if the risks persist. Given that people are notoriously bad at calculating risks, especially when it comes to themselves, people may have perceived higher risk at the beginning of the pandemic and then slowly readjusted their sense of emergency and threat without necessarily being aware that they were doing so. This process is aided by a variety of psychological biases, such as positivity bias that leads people to believe that a negative event – such as having severe reactions to COVID-19 or losing a loved one due to COVID-19 – is less likely to happen to them than it is to others.

In response to the first survey in March, 37.2% of people said they were either worried a lot or completely worried about getting or having COVID-19, compared to 25.7% of people three months later. In March, 28.6% of people said they were only a little worried or not at all, compared to 42% of people six months later. In other words, as time went on, people became less worried about getting or having COVID-19, despite the increase in deaths worldwide.

People also became less worried over time about their friends and family getting COVID-19. However, in all six surveys analyzed here, people were consistently more worried for their loved ones than they were for themselves. This is consistent with research indicating that people tend to be more concerned about the risks for their loved ones than for themselves. This is usually out of love and concern for others, and partly because people tend to imagine worse outcomes for others than for themselves and because they have less control over other’s behavior than their own.

It is important to note, however, that the numbers and statistics represented here are averages across all participants. While on average people seem to be doing emotionally better over the course of the pandemic then they were at the onset, the pandemic has not hit everyone to the same extent. For example, people who have financially suffered from COVID-19 also reported being more distressed than those whose financial situation had been less impacted. This is not surprising, as financial difficulties have a tremendous impact on people’s lives and emotional stability. Therefore, while people reported being less distressed and less worried about getting or having COVID-19 as time went on, this may also reflect the fact that some people have simply been hit less hard than others.

What does all this mean for love in the time of COVID-19? To be honest, we’re not sure yet, but that’s why the continued involvement of the participants in this research means so much to us and why we wanted to give you a quick snapshot of how people have been feeling over the course of the initial phases of the pandemic. We are incredibly grateful to the participants who have given their time and energy to this important study. The pandemic is not yet over, and neither is the Love in the Time of COVID project. The research team is currently working on examining a variety of research questions and writing up the findings in papers that will be shared with the research community in online journals and with the wider community here on our blog. We are looking into questions like: how has the increase in technology use influenced people’s relationships? How are parents dealing with the stress of managing work and childcare at home? What is Zoom fatigue and how is it affecting us? Have people’s sexual behaviors and relationship quality been affected by stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic? Stay tuned for more. For further readings: An interview on resilience during COVID-19 with Dr. Ann Masten, resilience researcher. New York Times article on why people aren’t so good at risk assessment and what biases may be coming into play when calculating personal risk during the pandemic. Listen to this podcast where Dr. Slatcher, one of the Love in the Time of COVID team members, talks about more findings from the project. Read a pre-print (not yet peer reviewed) by our team of researchers on how responsiveness from a partner can help alleviate the difficulties that COVID-related stressors place on romantic relationships.

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