Every year, on 20 March, the UN releases a World Happiness Report, which ranks national happiness across the world (Finland are top this year, again) and looks into a key happiness issue in greater depth.
This year, the report focuses on social, urban and natural environments and the impact they have on our wellbeing. Our surrounding environment now seems more important than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic has massively reduced people’s lived environment to their homes and deemed normal working and social environments unsafe.
What happy thing could be said in the face of this global catastrophe? Well, nothing really. Most of the key determinants of happiness, as outlined by the report, will take a hit over the coming weeks and months. The main six of these are: income, health, employment, discrimination, generosity, and social connection and trust. It’s hard to see how the current crisis will not erode each of these wellbeing factors, especially for those who are already struggling.
But perhaps not fully. In 2013, the World Happiness Report looked into the wellbeing impacts of the global financial crisis. It found that in countries with high levels of social connection and trust (in particular, Ireland and Iceland), people’s wellbeing was much less negatively impacted by the economic distress caused by the crisis. This makes sense. In Ireland, for instance, over 94% of people say they have someone they can rely on in times of trouble. They also have high levels of social solidarity and autonomy (feeling they are in control of their own destiny). Rising up in the face of adversity is something we do together.
This year’s World Happiness Report adds to this picture, showing the importance of trust in mitigating the negative wellbeing impacts of inequality. In the report’s overview, the authors present the following example:
“Marie, who is in good health, employed, married, with average income, sees herself as free from discrimination, and feels safe in the streets at night is estimated to have life satisfaction 3.5 points higher, on the 0 to 10 scale, than Helmut, who is in fair or worse health, unemployed, in the bottom-fifth of the income distribution, divorced, and afraid in the streets at night. This is the difference if they both live in a relatively low-trust environment.”
The authors go on to show that, if Marie and Helmut lived instead in a high-trust environment, the wellbeing gap between them would shrink by a third. They state that, “the wellbeing costs of hardship are significantly less where there is a positive social environment within which one is more likely to find a helping hand and a friendly face.”
So, why is trust so important? In my book, The Happiness Problem: Expecting Better in an Uncertain World, I argue that our lives are inherently uncertain and insecure. We work hard to achieve some sort of stability within all the chaos – a long-term career, a committed relationship, a place we can call our own, and so on. But, as stable as these things often appear to be, they are not immune to loss and disruption, as the current global crisis shows. When we need to rely on things that are ultimately out of our control, we have but one option: to trust them. This trust is built on multiple instances of relying on the thing in question and not being let down. It is a lifeboat on a sea of uncertainty.
Right now, people around the world are doing amazing things to help vulnerable members of their local communities. Governments need to join them with bold and ambitious attempts to support people’s basic health, income and employment. Only then can we start to rebuild the trust that was so heavily eroded during the long period of austerity that followed the previous global crisis. When it comes to people’s wellbeing, we cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
You may also be interested to read:
What is ‘real change’ and what does happiness have to do with it?
Why the problems of democracy and happiness have more in common than you think
PODCAST: Happiness is nice but it won’t solve the world’s problems
VIDEO: A new way of thinking about happiness
What being happier together would actually look like
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