What if I told you last March that the pandemic would drag on for 14 months and 80% of Americans would be as well off – or better off – financially than they were when it began? You would have called me a lunatic. 

Hell, I would have called myself a lunatic. 

Yet here we are. 

Or consider these factoids:

  • Interest in “passion” categories like sports, music, fashion, and art plummeted last year. Of course it did. We were consumed by a deadly virus, a racial injustice crisis, and a political maelstrom. Who had the mental bandwidth for anything else? 
  • If I had told you those passion categories would bounce back after the election ended and vaccines rolled out, you would have sneered at the obviousness of that statement. And we all would have been wrong. People are even more indifferent to sports, music, fashion, and art than they were in January. I have the data to prove it.
  • We did a study with the Wall Street Journal last week, showing that one-third of parents are signing their kids up for fewer activities than they did before the pandemic. Maybe travel tournaments every weekend sucked, and we needed to purge them to realize it.​​​​​​
  • When we ask remote workers why they’re apprehensive about returning to the office, their physical health and safety is an afterthought. Most people simply don’t want things to go back to the way they were. They worry that even hybrid schedules will be a slippery slope. 


As the light at the end of the COVID tunnel brightens, we can begin taking stock of our worldwide social experiment. Surely, the pandemic changed us. 

Or did it? 

What if decades of materialism, peer pressure, career treadmills, and packed schedules actually changed us – and the pandemic merely snapped us out of it?   

Every day since 2012, we’ve asked thousands of Americans to rate how happy they are. Our so-called Happiness Index reached its lowest point in recorded history this past February, before rebounding to pre-pandemic heights this week. 

Imagine how happy people would be if we hadn’t lost nearly 600,000 friends and loved ones, or if unemployment wasn’t 2X higher than it was pre-COVID.

Maybe people will be even happier a year from now. 

Or maybe not.

If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that I can’t see that far ahead. 

Here’s what we’re seeing right in front of us:

Happiness aside, consumer confidence is in a lull due largely to inflationary fears. Our Economic Sentiment Index had its second consecutive downturn, driven mostly by declining positivity toward the housing market, major purchases, and overall outlook for the U.S. economy. On the other hand, for the first time since we started tracking it, confidence in the job market is higher than anything else. It’s hard to see much that will alter these trends in the near term.

I take that back – the coming wave of child tax credits could give things a healthy boost. As qualifying parents await the July disbursement of federal funds for their expense-dragging kids, we caught a glimpse into how they plan to spend the money. Over a third will save or invest it, while 23% will pay down debt. A positive sign is that very little will be used for “essentials” like food. One in ten will use it to splurge. 



As for how people will splurge, that seems to have shifted this year as well. In our collective quest for self-care, people are prioritizing different indulgences more than they did before the pandemic. Clothing shopping sprees and event tickets have fallen, while meals, expensive liquor, and spa treatments are on the rise. The variations by gender are significant – and predictable. Me, I need a massage. And a nice bottle of tequila.  

Watching how the restaurant industry rebuilds will be fascinating. Two-thirds of Americans are mourning at least one or two of their favorite restaurants closing during COVID. But half expect new bars or restaurants to open in their area as we emerge from the pandemic. Most people are hoping for independent, locally-owned joints, but the results differ by age and region. There should be plenty of startup capital to get things off the ground, so long as operators can find people to work there.

Target could hit a home run with their plant-based food products. A full 35% of frequent Target shoppers have expressed interest in the company’s new meatless food offerings, which makes a lot of sense if you think about the profile of people who shop there. As we’ve shown you earlier, brand loyalty in the plant-based category for upstarts like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is flimsy at best. This is one of those many times when distribution is king. I’m still not interested.   

People have strong opinions about who the next Jeopardy! host should be. Among all the less serious stuff we study, I’m reminded to focus on the things that are really important. With a number of candidates yet to audition to fill Alex Trebek’s massive shoes, Ken Jennings is clearly the lead dog thus far. And while it’s unlikely Aaron Rodgers is ready to hang up his shoulder pads, he would be the #1 choice among Gen Z. Maybe there’s still time for a dark horse to emerge. We’ll wait on pins and needles. 



More studies this week:

The most popular questions of the week: 

Answer Key: Strawberry by a mile; Absolutely; Weekly; Einstein’s by far; Lol. Never in a million years (says Tara). 


Finally, I want to thank all of you who donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention last week. We raised over $18,000 (!!!) for an extremely important cause. 

I am forever grateful.
 

Hoping you’re well.

JD