WASHINGTON — Maureen Brennan will spend Christmas with her daughter at their Nashua, N.H., home after declining invitations from other relatives to celebrate with them. Michael Smith will mark the holidays alone in Elko, Nev., unwilling to risk being infected with the coronavirus before he can be vaccinated.
Neither feels overly festive this holiday season, reflecting the mood of many Americans as a year marred by a national health crisis and teetering economy ends with the coronavirus pandemic still raging out of control. That’s according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that also finds some Americans are feeling a bit sadder, lonelier and less grateful than last year.
Smith, 69, said he usually spends Christmas alone, but the pandemic has been especially difficult because he likes to frequent local coffee shops and chat with friends and neighbors. The Caribbean cruise he looks forward to every year, which would have set sail on Jan. 3, was canceled.
So he’s mostly been staying home, fearful of what could happen if he contracted the virus, because of a monthlong hospitalization for pneumonia five years ago.
“I’m stressed that I can’t just get in my car and go someplace,” said Smith, who fills his time by puttering on his tractor and doing chores around his property.
Just 22% of Americans say they feel very or extremely festive this year, down from 49% one year ago. Those who do feel festive tend to be those least worried about the virus.
Holidays are always a stressful time, “but now people are feeling really, really worn down because this has been going on for so long,” said Dr. Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Some people are suffering financially, and stimulus checks are running out.”
The pandemic — which has driven health care systems to the brink, thrown millions out of work and killed more than 310,000 in the U.S. — is casting a long shadow, with research showing that it has taken a toll on Americans’ mental health.
About 4 in 10 Americans are still intensely worried that they or a family member will be infected, with roughly three-quarters at least somewhat concerned. The coronavirus vaccine has capped the year with a glimmer of hope, but the poll found only about half of Americans are ready to get vaccinated immediately, with the rest unsure or uninterested. The poll was conducted shortly before the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for emergency use.
Overall, half of Americans say they’re at least somewhat lonely this holiday season, up from 41% last year. Fifty-two percent say they’re at least somewhat sad, compared to 44% last year.
Adults under 30 are more likely than those older to say they feel very sad or lonely — and more feel these emotions this year than they did last year.
Koenen said this is a time that young adults normally would be starting their independent lives. But now, graduation ceremonies may have been canceled, they may be forced to live with their families and it could be difficult to find a job because of the slowed economy.
For those who live alone, it’s “really hard right now (because) you’re literally alone all the time,” she said.
Brennan, who’s 76, said she’s lucky to have the companionship of her adult daughter, and hadn’t worried much about the virus until the number of infections and deaths began climbing in recent weeks. She and her daughter have been careful, wearing masks and patronizing the same stores to minimize potential exposure.
“But when figures started ramping up again … I could feel a sense of foreboding, especially watching what’s going on around (town) with the lack of stringency and the lack of mask-wearing,” said Brennan, a retired health care worker, who said she’s stocked up on baked goods and other favorites to ride out the holidays at home.
Both Brennan, whose husband died five years ago, and Smith said they have found satisfaction in helping others, rather than dwelling on what they cannot do.
“It is important to take care of those who absolutely need it and those who need only on a temporary basis,” said Brennan, who has donated to Nashua’s soup kitchen and children’s home.
Smith said he helped a couple of families, including a server at a coffee shop he frequents, who were struggling because of lost wages during the pandemic. Come January, he’ll donate to the local food bank.
Still, just 37% of Americans say they feel especially generous, compared with 52% last year.
Americans are also less likely to say they feel very grateful, though a 60% majority still say so, down from 73% a year ago.
Last year, similar majorities across ages and races said they were grateful. Now older Americans and Black Americans are especially likely to say they are. Koenen said it could be a reflection of their experiences.
“Maybe they’re grateful that they’re still here and also perhaps longer life gives one perspective,” Koenen said. “We do know gratitude increases resilience and mental health.”
Focusing on gratitude can help reduce anxiety, as can finding ways to help others, Koenen said. “So many felt helpless … but I think people feel better if they can do something,” she said.
Brennan said she’s chosen to focus on positive things, keeps up with what’s happening in her community and stays in contact with friends, even though they can’t visit.
“A lot of it is attitude,” she said. “You’ve got to be very realistic about this, but it’s not easy.”
And Smith is feeling more hopeful now that coronavirus vaccines have been approved.
“I look forward to (the time) when most of us will have had the vaccination,” he said. “Then we should be coming back to life.”