I think of my many faces of 2020, what my expression read day after day sitting on my couch at home, waiting. I certainly had many moments of fear, brow wrinkled and heart pulsing. I had many stretches of sadness, my face wearing a frown that felt too settled in. And in between, on the days that blurred together…a comfortable, steady weariness. I can’t think of too many days of happiness.
For most of us, happiness is a word we would never think to associate with 2020. And yet, during the darkest time in many of our lives, happiness found a way to shine through.
A surprising testament to human perseverance, the 2021 World Happiness Report highlighted the emotional resilience of those surveyed in 2020. The report analyzed life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions for over 350,000 people in 95 countries, utilizing data from the Gallup World Poll. It sought to understand how COVID has affected happiness at the individual level, and it explored the extent to which trust, benevolence, and demographics affect well-being.
Surprisingly, life satisfaction remained relatively stable, with countries like Finland, Denmark, and Switzerland occupying the top spots for highest life satisfaction, similar to years past. The United States ranking dropped by one place, to 19th. Still, life satisfaction remained steady throughout 2020, with almost 60% of Americans rating life satisfaction a 7 or higher. While most countries did see a significant dip in life satisfaction at the start of the pandemic, these numbers largely recovered by the end of the year. Americans are also expecting a better road ahead: 70% of American respondents expect their life satisfaction rating to be 8 or more five years from now – a higher average score than before COVID-19.
Emotional well-being ratings also recovered mainly at the end of 2020. However, initial adverse effects were more severe and were experienced longer. Negative emotion ratings, like sadness and anxiety, changed significantly due to the pandemic. In May 2020, mental health problems were 49% higher than in past years. Unsurprisingly, unemployment accounted for a significant increase in negative emotions during 2020, creating a 9 percent overall drop. Those who worked in unstable jobs, younger respondents, and those who rated themselves higher in loneliness were especially affected by employment change.
However, overall findings showed only a slight shift in happiness as a result of COVID-19. The authors close the report by saying, “Comparing the 2017-2019 rankings with those based on the 2018-2020 data, for the 95 countries with data for 2020, the rank correlation is 0.99. This shows that Covid-19 has led to only modest changes in the overall rankings, reflecting both the global nature of the pandemic and a widely shared resilience in the face of it.”
Trust: the key to happiness?
Trust is a major metric tracked by the World Happiness Report, as it often correlates with overall happiness. The report used what they call the “wallet question” to determine whether participants felt they could trust their community. This question asked: if you hypothetically lost your wallet, which contained a large sum of money, what is the likelihood that your wallet is returned by a neighbor, police officer, and stranger? Findings showed that those who believed their wallet would likely be returned had a higher life satisfaction rate. Further, perceived trust in one’s society proved to impact happiness twice as much as doubling one’s salary. These findings make it clear that community trust significantly affects happiness in one’s life.
With the turbulent political climate and the chaos of COVID, it’s interesting to think about how trust evolved in 2020. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 indicated an erosion of trust in 2020, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, outcry over systemic racism, and the political environment. The report saw a decline in confidence in two of the largest global economies: the US and China, which dropped 40% and 30%, respectively. The four institutions tracked by the report – business, government, NGOs, and media – averaged 55% in trust ratings across respondents, with media being the least trusted (51%). A restoration in institutional trust is needed – especially in areas like the media and government, which have been plagued by the crisis of misinformation and significant political divide.
The resilience of the human spirit
Overall, COVID-19 has forced people to adapt in ways they never expected. While this adaption has in many ways been negative, it also has provided new opportunities to experience optimism and well-being. Professor John Helliwell at the University of British Columbia says, “You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year.”
Happiness also tends to stabilize after a significant event, either negative or positive. In the late 1970s, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts studied the happiness levels of both recent lottery winners and victims of life-changing accidents. They found that in both groups, happiness eventually stabilized.
According to the researchers, “Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive [and negative] events will cease to have an impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.”
So, even with a catastrophic event like COVID, happiness is resilient.
At a time when so much sadness and despair occupies our daily lives, when political turbulence raises fear, it can feel impossible to carry hope. And yet, somehow, we remain vigilant in our fight to be happy people. These seemingly small wins, like being able to maintain relative positivity in a year unlike any other, are pretty remarkable and should be celebrated. Even with an erosion of trust in our institutions, we find ways to stay optimistic.
Amidst a struggle, my grandma always told us that we are “tough cookies.” I’ve had to tell myself that more than ever this last year and a half. I’ve gotten through days I didn’t think I could get through, sometimes with a smile on my face. I genuinely believe that we are capable of much more internal strength than we think we are.