The world was sadder and more stressed out in 2021 than ever before, 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 the isolation and uncertainty that came with it — is a factor but not entirely to blame.
Carol Graham, a Gallup senior scientist, says the culprit for declining mental health includes the economic uncertainty faced by low-skilled workers.
“There are some structural negative 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 higher levels of education, what they’re going to do in the future is very unknown. What their stability will be like, what their workforce participation will be like. … Rising levels of inequality between skilled and unskilled workers is another part of it, having to do with technology-driven growth.”
As it does every year, Gallup asked adults in 122 countries and areas in 2021 if they had five different negative experiences on the day before the survey — and compiled the results into an index. Higher scores on the Negative Experience Index indicate that more of a population is experiencing these emotions.
In 2021, four in 10 adults worldwide said they experienced a lot of worry (42%) or stress (41%), and slightly more than three in 10 experienced a lot of physical pain (31%). More than one in four experienced sadness (28%), and slightly fewer experienced anger (23%).
Overall, the survey results were not surprising to psychologist Josh Briley, a fellow at The American Institute of Stress.
“Things are moving faster. There’s so much information being thrown at us all the time,” he says. “And of course, media thrives on the bad stuff. So, we are constantly being bombarded with crisis after crisis in the news, on social media, on the radio and on our podcasts. And all that is drowning out the good things that are happening.”
Psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord says being more connected online means people in one country can feel profoundly affected by what happens in another country, which wasn’t always the case in the past.
Happiness worldwide has been trending downward for a decade, according to Gallup. All three psychologists who spoke with VOA point to social media and the flood of unfiltered information as contributors to declining mental health and happiness.
“We’ve seen this explosion worldwide, and I think that’s a big sort of tectonic shift in how humans interact and experience emotions and all sorts of things. And we’re seeing that there’s some real downsides to it,” Graham says.
Briley says part of the problem is that although people are more connected online, they’re often less connected in real life.
“The connection that we have with people, the physical connection has changed. We’re more connected than ever before with people all the way around the world, but we may not know our neighbors’ names anymore,” he says. “So, we don’t necessarily have that person where if my car breaks down, who do I call for a ride to work?”
More optimism, despite frowns
However, there was one bright spot: Reports of anger did not increase in 2021, dropping a single point from 24% in 2020.
On top of the increase in negative experiences, fewer people reported that they had positive experiences the previous day. After several years of stability, the Positive Experience Index score in 2021 — 69 — dropped for the first time since 2017.
The Positive Experience Index is based on people’s responses to five questions about positive experiences they had the day before the survey. Higher scores indicate that more of the population reported experiencing these emotions.
Last year, roughly seven in 10 people worldwide said they felt well-rested (69%), experienced a lot of enjoyment (70%), or smiled or laughed a lot (72%). Nearly nine in 10 felt treated with respect (86%). People were far less likely, as they are typically, to say they learned or did something interesting the day before the interview; in 2021, half of the world (50%) experienced this.
With more people dying from the coronavirus in 2021 than the previous year despite the rollout of vaccines, people felt less well-rested, and fewer derived enjoyment from the previous day. The percentage who said they felt well rested dropped three points, and the percentage who experienced a lot of enjoyment dropped two.
However, the picture wasn’t entirely bleak. People were starting to smile and laugh again — the percentage who laughed or smiled a lot increased two points — and the percentage who learned something interesting ticked up one point.