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.”
Gallup spoke to adults in 122 countries and areas for its latest Global Emotions Report. Afghanistan is the unhappiest country, with Afghans leading the world when it comes to negative experiences.
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. For her U.S. clients, uncertainty is the biggest stressor.
“Uncertainty of life and how it's going to impact them on a daily basis. Prices going up and gas going up. And then the supply chain issues that are impacting people in their daily lives,” Alvord says. “But I think the bigger issue is that uncertainty and so much suffering. Of course, the shootings have come up. A lot of people are really stressed out and feeling like, ‘Where is it safe?’”
There have been more than 300 shootings involving multiple victims in the United States so far in 2022.
Facebook executive Antigone Davis testifies before Congress about Instagram's impact on mental health, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 30, 2021.
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
On the upside, the survey found that the percentage of people who reported laughing or smiling a lot was up two points in 2021, while the number of people who say they learned something interesting increased one point. Alvord says looking beyond the negative is critical to maintaining mental health.
“It's important for people to also find moments of, if not joy, at least satisfaction in life,” she says. “I think sometimes we reach for happiness and that's just not attainable … and so, our expectations need to be realistic.”
Minorities in the United States might already be doing that. The survey found that people from marginalized groups are among the most resilient.
“Their anxiety may have increased but their optimism, particularly for low-income African Americans, remains very high,” Graham says. “It was a finding I've seen for many years, but it surprised me that even during COVID, it held. I think that's more due to the kind of community ties and other ties that minority communities have built, almost informal safety nets, that have been very protective many, many times in history.”