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What if we’ve missed the biggest story in front of us?
The consensus over the last year or so is that our culture has gotten courser, the public discourse meaner, the people around us ruder. The evidence is seemingly everywhere. The United Nations said last week that one-quarter of humanity—two billion people—live in conflict areas, and the number of conflicts is higher than at any time since World War. The Wall Street Journal last week asked, “Are We All Road Ragers Now? Why Driving Is Making Us Angry.” Also last week, a disturbing report in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution said students are bringing more weapons to campus compared to recent years and brawling more frequently in hallways and cafeterias.
If it walks like cultural decline, quacks like cultural decline, it’s cultural decline, right? Most people don’t even bother to qualify this observation anymore; they simply assert it.
But another report last month, from one of the more well-known international organizations, using data from one of the more reputable international data companies, and following a methodology used for the last decade, paints a more nuanced—and a more hopeful—view of where our culture stands.
The World Happiness Report is compiled annually by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network using data from the Gallup World Poll. Begun ten years ago, the survey, led by John F. Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia along with a panel of six scholars in the UK, the United States, Korea, and elsewhere, explores how people evaluate their lives in more than 150 countries worldwide.
As the authors explain the origin of the initiative:
The overview the authors released of this year’s study begins with this statement, “In this troubled time of war and pandemic, the World Happiness Report 2022 reports a bright light in dark times. The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence.”
As Dr. Helliwell elaborated on these findings: "We found during 2021 remarkable worldwide growth in all three acts of kindness monitored in the Gallup World Poll. Helping strangers, volunteering, and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25 percent above their pre-pandemic prevalence. This surge of benevolence, which was especially great for helping strangers, provides powerful evidence that people respond to help others in need, creating more happiness for the beneficiaries, good examples for others to follow, and better lives for themselves."
As for the report’s much-watched tally of the world’s happiest countries, Finland occupies the top spot for the fifth year in a row. (With anxiety over Russia on its doorstep, one wonders how long that position can hold.) Denmark continues to occupy second place, with Iceland moving up from 4th to 3rd place this year. The rest of the top 10 includes Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand.
The United States rises (!) from 19th to 16th, while Canada has fallen from 5th a decade ago to 15th today. The bottom of the list is comprised of Costa Rica, Slovenia, Bahrain, and France. These national rankings are based on income, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.
One finding in the report especially jumped out at me. The researchers looked at trends in the use of words for happiness over the last 40 years. In every language they checked, including Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, British English, and American English, the use of happiness increased; the only exception was German, where usage soared in the 2010s but has started to drop.
At the same time, usage of the phrase economic growth has declined in every one of those languages, suggesting that happiness is fast eclipsing money as a primary motivator of life satisfaction.
To me, these numbers are a corrective to our collective disgruntlement. They remind us: Don’t believe everything you read, don’t let the sometimes brashness of social media completely undermine your view of humanity, and don’t give up.
As the survey writers say, our evaluations of our own well-being “have remained remarkably resilient during COVID-19.” For the young, worry and stress have risen, and that’s understandable. But for those over 60, life satisfaction has actually gone up in the last few years. And for people of all ages, their response to seeing so many suffer has resulted in a “global upsurge in benevolence” unseen in the history of this study and a newfound appreciation for “the crucial importance of trust for human well-being.”
Don’t mindlessly contribute to the malaise, everyone. We’re not doing as poorly as it sometimes appears. And in private, we’re actually feeling more generous than we have in years and are opening our hearts and our wallets to those around us who need us most.
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cover image ©frimufilms via Canva.com