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The world’s emotional status is actually pretty good, a new global report finds

The Gallup Global Emotions Report for 2024, released last Tuesday, starts with a provocation. By trying to measure life’s intangibles, like feelings and emotions, the survey is seeking insights into the health of societies that, as the authors of the report t…



The world’s emotional status is actually pretty good, a new global report finds
The world’s emotional status is actually pretty good, a new global report finds
The Gallup Global Emotions Report for 2024, released last Tuesday, starts with a provocation. By trying to measure life’s intangibles, like feelings and emotions, the survey is seeking insights into the health of societies that, as the authors of the report themselves note, “traditional economic indicators such as GDP were never intended to capture.” Thankfully, the report doesn’t offer yet another critique of why GDP isn’t a perfect indicator for progress. Instead, it reports on the annual state of two indexes — one for positive emotions, the other for negative — that can complement GDP in trying to give us a quick sense of how society is actually doing. The results are surprisingly … fine. Perhaps you’ve felt that the world is accelerating into chaos; heard more chatter about the experts who think AI will lead to human extinction; or thought that even if it doesn’t, our continued failure to adequately deal with climate change will get the job done anyway. Or maybe you have children, and have been particularly attuned to how screwed we keep hearing youth mental health is. --- Against doomerism Media is known to lean negative. I could rewrite that doomer-esque paragraph about the world accelerating into gloomy chaos in its mirror image, rattling off incredibly exciting achievements, ideas, and success stories that fuel a sense of optimism. In fact, we did a whole package like that here. --- Yet, the topline results from the Gallup report look pretty good. Positive emotions reached a score of 71 out of 100 worldwide, the highest since the pandemic began. And negative emotions dropped for the first time since 2014. Among all age groups, young people were, by far, the best off. They experienced more positive emotions than anyone else and fewer negative ones. And in both directions, that’s been the case since measurement began in 2006. [Image:] And to make things even more interesting: While GDP does track nicely with some approximations of well-being, not a single highly economically developed country is to be found in the top ranks of Gallup’s Positive Experiences Index. The list is dominated by Latin American and Southeast Asian countries. While comparing happiness levels across countries with different cultures can be fraught, this still raises questions about the emotional wealth of industrialized nations, but it also reflects the important challenges in figuring out how to measure something as intangible and fuzzy as how we actually feel. Different methodologies deliver different pictures of well-being Every measure of well-being is biased in its own way. The Gallup emotions survey, which polls about 1,000 respondents from each of the 142 included countries, focuses on two measures. The Positive Experience Index is an average across different questions: - Did you feel well rested yesterday? - Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? - Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? - Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday? - Did you experience enjoyment during a lot of the day yesterday? Higher scores mean positive feelings are more pervasive across a given country. The Negative Experience Index has a similar structure, asking whether respondents felt physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger the day before. By this measure, the world’s happiest countries are places like Paraguay, Indonesia, and Thailand. But wait. Perhaps you’ve heard that Finland is actually the world’s happiest country, and has been so for seven years in a row. That ranking comes from the World Happiness Report, which also uses data collected by Gallup, but on a different question. It focuses on life satisfaction, rather than daily experiences, by using a question known as the Cantril ladder. It asks people to imagine a ladder with numbered steps from zero to 10, the top representing “the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.” Then, they ask people to place themselves on the ladder. When you look at happiness that way, you get Scandinavian domination: [Image:] If you ask people to place themselves on a ladder of life satisfaction, you’ll get a different answer than if you ask the same group of people about the emotions they felt the day before. By conjuring the image of a societal ladder, the life satisfaction approach might actually be measuring something closer to social status than happiness, my colleague Sigal Samuel argues. “The poisonousness of social comparison can also help make sense of the observation that higher GDP doesn’t always correlate with increased happiness,” she writes. “The US has a high GDP, but it also has extremely high inequality. So a lot of Americans are comparing themselves to other, richer Americans — and becoming more miserable as a result.” Measuring daily emotional experiences could circumvent the concern of biasing results toward status. But it could also miss a bunch of other considerations associated with a happy life or, certainly, progress. Amartya Sen, the famous development economist, argued that reducing welfare to pleasurable mental conditions “can be very misleading, since it may fail to reflect a person’s real deprivation.” Humans are remarkably adaptive, and may still find and report pleasurable experiences while living in conditions of extreme poverty, limited opportunities for education and social mobility, or political oppression. Interestingly, not a single country from the G7 — an informal group of economic powerhouses that meet annually to coordinate on global governance — is to be found at the top of either list. If there were a G7 formed on the basis of happiness, rather than economic development, it would consist of countries like Paraguay and Indonesia, not the US or Germany. If we had a life satisfaction G7, it’d mostly just be Scandinavia. The vibecession paradox in young people As revealed in Gallup’s report, young people have been more positive than anyone else for almost two decades, and were quickest to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels of feeling good. Even zooming in on the US, where youth anxiety and depression have increased over the past two decades, the Gallup report says that whatever’s been going on, positive experiences are still more pervasive among the young than anyone else. Part of this discrepancy could boil down to methodology. The survey defines “young” as anyone between the ages of 15 and 30. The report contains no data on adolescents younger than 15, which is where a good deal of the youth mental health crisis (which seems mostly confined, curiously, to English-speaking countries) is happening. But it’s still pretty interesting that young people between the ages of 15 and 30 show up as consistently more positive and resilient than any other group. Where is the specter of doomerism we keep hearing about? For example, a 2021 global survey of 10,000 young people aged 16-25 found that 75 percent think the “future is frightening,” 55 percent agree that “the things I most value will be destroyed,” and 56 percent agree that “humanity is doomed.” Stack these two surveys next to each other — positive emotions are pervasive among a majority of young people, but they also think that everything around them is going to shit — and you get a tension that looks oddly like the vibecession. Beneath the headlines of the vibecession, describing the still ongoing paradox of an economy that is really good on paper but really bad according to the people living in it, something more nuanced seems to be going on. People are reporting that they’re personally doing fine. It’s everything else — the local economy, the national economy — that’s terrible. The global emotions paradox seems similar. The prevailing mood looks something like: “I’m fine, but humanity is doomed.” The wealth of emotions Projects that try to expand our repertoire of indicators that tell us something about how we’re doing as a civilization are worth celebrating. But we should also make sure we learn our lesson from the GDP days. What makes a fixation on GDP problematic has little to do with an error or bias in the measure itself. It’s a very useful measure of economic activity (and really does track pretty well with life satisfaction). But even the guy who created it, economist Simon Kuznets, warned in 1934 that “the welfare of a nation can ... scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Nevertheless, GDP became shorthand for progress, warping it into something it was never meant to be. Similarly, surveys that try to keep track of the intangible aspects of societal health are wonderful complements to GDP. But the intangibles of the mind, by their very definition, resist measurement. If I felt the most intense, pure, concentrated form of bliss I’d ever known yesterday, could a survey question really capture that? Which is to say, we should hold these results lightly, and look at well-being from other perspectives, too. Even so, the emotions survey is already turning up a handful of mysteries to explore. Why are none of the most highly developed countries rich in positive emotions? Are young people doing a bit better than we thought? What lessons in governance for well-being might we learn from Paraguay, or Finland? We could be coming out of a time when metrics like GDP fixated us on building societies that look good on paper. By turning intangible stuff into tractable data points, however imperfectly, maybe these kinds of surveys will help turn our attention toward judging and designing societies based on how it actually feels to be a part of them, scrutinizing the direct emotional experience of being enmeshed in their cities, people, technologies, and landscapes. Maybe then, we can all join the young in their apparently resilient and positive experiences of the world. A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!