The world was sadder and more stressed in 2021 than ever, according to a recent Gallup poll, which found that four in 10 adults worldwide said they experienced a lot of worry or stress.
Experts say the most obvious culprit, the pandemic, and its accompanying isolation and uncertainty, is a factor, but not entirely to blame.
Carol Graham, a senior scientist at Gallup, says the culprit for deteriorating mental health includes the economic uncertainty faced by low-skilled workers.
“There are some negative structural changes that make some people in particular more vulnerable. And in the end, mental health just reflects that,” says Graham, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.
“For young people who do not have good levels of higher education, what they are going to do in the future is very unknown. How will their stability be, how will their labor participation be. … Rising levels of inequality between skilled and unskilled workers is another part, which has to do with technology-driven growth.”
Gallup spoke to adults in 122 countries and areas for its latest Global Emotions Report. Afghanistan is the unhappiest country, with Afghans leading the world in negative experiences.
In general, the results of the survey did not surprise psychologist Josh Briley, a member of the American Institute of Stress.
“Things are moving faster. There is so much information being thrown at us all the time,” she says. “And of course the media thrives on bad stuff. Therefore, we are constantly being bombarded with crisis after crisis in the news, on social media, on the radio, and in our podcasts. And all of that is drowning out the good things that are happening.”
Psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord says that being more connected online means that people in one country can feel deeply affected by what’s going on in another country, which wasn’t always the case in the past. For your US customers, uncertainty is the biggest stressor.
“The uncertainty of life and how it will affect them on a daily basis. Prices going up and gasoline going up. And then the supply chain issues that affect people in their daily lives,” says Alvord. “But I think the biggest problem is that uncertainty and so much suffering. Of course, the shootings have arisen. A lot of people are really stressed out and feel like, ‘Where is it safe?’”
There have been more than 300 mass shootings in the United States so far in 2022.
Happiness around the world has been on a downward trend for a decade, according to Gallup. The three psychologists who spoke with VOA point out that social media and the flood of unfiltered information contribute to the deterioration of mental health and happiness.
“We’ve seen this explosion all over the world, and I think it’s a big kind of tectonic shift in the way that humans interact and experience emotions and all sorts of things. And we’re seeing that there are some real downsides,” says Graham.
Briley says part of the problem is that while people are more connected online, they’re often less connected in real life.
“The connection we have with people, the physical connection has changed. We are more connected than ever to people around the world, but we may no longer know our neighbors’ names,” she says. “So we don’t necessarily have that person that, if my car breaks down, who do I call to take me to work?”
More optimism, despite the frown
On the bright side, the survey found that the percentage of people who reported laughing or smiling a lot increased by two points in 2021, while the number of people who say they learned something interesting increased by one point. Alvord says that looking past the negative is critical to maintaining mental health.
“It’s important that people also find moments of, if not joy, then at least satisfaction in life,” she says. “I think sometimes we look for happiness and that’s just not attainable…and therefore our expectations have to be realistic.”
Minorities in the United States may already be doing that. The survey found that people from marginalized groups are among the most resilient.
“Their anxiety may have increased, but their optimism, particularly for low-income African Americans, remains very high,” says Graham. “It was a finding that I have seen for many years, but I was surprised that even during COVID, it held. I think that’s more due to the kind of community ties and other ties that minority communities have built, almost informal safety nets, that have been very protective many, many times in history.”