The World Happiness Report is out, with a surprising picture of global resilience
By RYAN BACIC | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 2, 2021
In a conclusion that even surprised its editors, the 2021 World Happiness Report found that, amid global hardship, self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 from the previous year.
The United States saw the same trend -- despite societal tumult that yielded a national drop in positive emotions and a rise in negative ones. The country fell one spot, to 19th, in the annual rankings of the report, released March 27.
The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts say.
“I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” said one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University. But while the use of national averages masks individual well-being disparities, Sachs said, the data suggests that “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.”
The happiness report relies on the Gallup World Poll, which asks respondents to rate their current life satisfaction on a zero-to-10 “ladder” scale, with a 10 representing “the best possible life for you.” It’s a “longer view” of happiness, as Sachs put it, and its steadiness aligns with what other U.S. Gallup polling and some European polling has found during the pandemic.
In late March to early April of 2020, at the beginning of pandemic restrictions, 58.2% of U.S. respondents rated their current life satisfaction as a 7 or above, Gallup found.
While the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms rose sharply over the course of 2020, that satisfaction number stayed fairly even through December, according to the report, even after further covid-19 restrictions, pandemic surges, protests over racial injustices and politics, and a divisive presidential election.
All the while, Americans’ expected future happiness remained high: In five surveys since the pandemic began, between 65.8% and 69.2% of respondents said they expected their life satisfaction to be an 8 or above five years into the future, higher than before the pandemic. That suggests an optimism for the future that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, says is “really, really adaptive.”
“We have the most massive changes in social behavior we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes happen during this pandemic,” said Lyubomirsky, author of books such as “The Myths of Happiness” and “The How of Happiness.” “And so I would have expected much, much bigger declines in well-being. And we do not see that.”
It’s not so much that people are doing precisely as well as they were before, experts explain, as that many have adapted to their new situations in ways that might have roughly evened out their well-being. “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year,’ “ said John Helliwell, another editor of the report and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.
Stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness. And this, psychologists say, can improve resilience. You’ve already likely taken the opportunity to examine your own big picture this past year, but, if you’ve been having difficulty, and because we’re not done with this pandemic, here are some strategies to help.
Look for awe-inducing experiences
When the rover Perseverance touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, Ethan Kross, a professor and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan, felt something powerful: awe.
“When you experience awe, that’s an emotion we have when you’re in the presence of something that’s vast and hard to explain,” said Kross, the recent author of “Chatter.” “Like, I don’t know how the hell we figured out how to land on another planet, right? But it fills me with awe.”
The landing, he recalled, reminded him of life’s bigger (in this case, interplanetarily massive) picture. “What science has shown is that when you experience awe, that leads to a ‘shrinking of the self,’ “ Kross explained. “So our own problems feel smaller by comparison.” Perseverance, it seems, helped him summon the same.
You can also find awe stopping at a scenic overlook, watching a sunset or seeing a 1-year-old figure out how to take their first, hesitant steps. A 2018 study, published in the journal Emotion, sent students and military veterans on a whitewater-rafting trip and asked them to record their experiences of six different positive emotions after each day on the river. The extent to which the rafters felt awe, researchers found, most predicted changes in their well-being and stress symptoms a week later.
Seek social support, and give it
It’s no surprise that, according to this year’s happiness report, “the ability to count on others” was a “major” support to life evaluations in 2020.
“Social support is by far one of the best ways to help people cope with any kind of adversity or stress or tragedy,” Lyubomirsky said, and it’s been crucial during the pandemic: drive-by birthdays, neighbors helping the elderly, regular Zoom or FaceTime check-ins with friends.
But communing with others also expands our perspective. And if we’re facing a problem, or getting down on ourselves, those who know us well often see things we don’t.
“Other people can be really excellent sources of feedback for our superpowers and our strength,” said Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author of “Insight.”
Helping others can take you outside of yourself and help you, too: The global “happiness effects” of generosity increased last year, the report found, and making a donation correlated with higher life satisfaction and positive affect. That finding tracks with a number of studies that testify to the well-being boosts of acts of kindness and volunteering.
Give yourself some (psychological) distance
Psychological distancing refers to “kind of a perspective broadening,” Kross explained. After gaining some distance from a stressor, he said, we’re often better equipped to reengage.
One version is linguistic distancing, a technique that involves analyzing your situation from a third-person perspective, like a close friend would, and activating self-compassion. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that “participants who showed greater linguistic distancing were more successful [emotional] regulators.”
“You go on a date, it doesn’t go well, and you have all these negative thoughts like, ‘Oh, it was because I wasn’t attractive enough, or I was not interesting enough.’ A friend would never say that to you, right?” Lyubomirsky said. “It’s partly they’re being kind, but partly it’s a little bit objective. When we’re immersed in our own problems and wallowing in our negative thoughts, we’re not taking that big-picture perspective.”
During the pandemic, Kross has been recommending and himself practicing a second version: temporal distancing, which involves imagining how you’ll feel about a current stressor sometime off in the future, perhaps a year from now, after it’s passed.
Reappraise, and look for meaning
“Humans are meaning-making machines,” Eurich said, and finding personally relevant positive meaning in trying experiences - a technique known as positive reappraisal - can broaden and boost your outlook. A 2015 review of studies on older adults showed that positive reappraisal is “an adaptive coping strategy for older adults with wide-ranging benefits,” including for physical health.
Eurich recommended reflecting on questions like “What are the strengths or insights that I showed up with in facing the situation?” or “What have I learned about myself or about my most important relationships?” and considering how, amid a trying experience, you might be helping your future self. Reflecting on such questions, she said, can reveal growth or benefits the person hadn’t considered, even if it “doesn’t change its negative reality.” A new appraisal is a step toward tweaking your broader narrative.
“The best individual levels of psychological resilience come when we take a really horrible event like a car crash or the death of a loved one [and] turn that into a story of, ‘You know, this really bad thing happened. It was really hard. And I got through it, and here’s what I did to get out of it,’ “ said Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Studies program at Northeastern University. “As opposed to saying, ‘I’m still that person stuck in my house’ or ‘I’m still the person anxious about getting my parents sick.’ It’s hard to maintain that narrative and feel like I’m moving forward.”
Of course, changing one’s narrative isn’t easy, and it might not always be feasible.
But Kross, for his part, is welcoming a possible alternate narrative now on pandemic resilience.
“The discourse right now is so much on the negative side of things, and for very good reason,” he said. “. . . But I do think that [this is] a story about hope.” Without dismissing the United States’ very real suffering, he said, “you’re seeing evidence of a society that is not crumbling.”