A lot of people have had a lot to deal with this past year. Some lost loved ones and friends. Some lost jobs, others had their income reduced. And all of us had our lives affected one way or another by being shut in at home for months. For some this meant anxiety and sadness. For a few it meant greater happiness and optimism.
The Economist reported in March on the latest happiness data from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (see chart to the right). Gallup asked people to evaluate their lives on a scale of “1” (the worst) to “10” (the best). It might surprise some that the average score across 95 countries did not change much at all between 2017-2019 and 2020. In fact, it went up slightly from 5.81 to 5.85. One explanation might be that people have strong coping skills. We have the ability to make mid-course corrections to our mood and our outlook.
The data also show that older people are more satisfied with their lives than younger people. The Economist suggests this might be because older people appreciate that governments targeted them early for COVID treatment, and basic computer software has allowed them to stay in touch with loved ones. Conversely, younger people have been most affected by job losses, and their active, in-person social lives have been significantly disrupted by the COVID lockdown.
Some countries increased their life satisfaction in 2020 while others dropped. Even though England had a strong COVID vaccine rollout and a strong pre-COVID score, happiness fell quite sharply in the current poll. Perhaps Brexit had something to do with it. Germany’s score increased sharply. It handled COVID-19 better than most other European countries.
In general, those countries with a high “trust” factor in government have done a better job dealing with COVID and have also come out with a higher happiness score. East Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea) generally registered stronger happiness scores. At the other extreme, many South American countries (Brazil and Mexico) with a low trust in government have not done that well handling COVID. Their happiness scores fell.
The U.S. is a bit of a puzzle. We do not have high trust in government today and our handling of the COVID crisis, certainly in terms of number of deaths, has not been impressive. And yet Americans are generally happy both in absolute terms and relative to 2017-2019. Maybe it is because the various COVID vaccines have been readily available or maybe it’s because, as The Economist puts it, many Americans are in an “alternate information universe” where COVID is just another flu! This sounds a bit strange, but who knows? It’s just good to know that happiness is holding up.
The chart below is from our archives, something we used in the September 2012 newsletter. I bet the research then is still true now. Happiness is generally U-shaped by age, high in your early 20’s, then declining through midlife, only to rise again in later years. So, stay upright and happiness will follow!