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Mar 24, 2022 | by Nancy Hey

How do we cope with world events beyond our control?

The last two years have been bumpy for our wellbeing and happiness. Just as it seems we are coming out of the Covid woods a little bit and restrictions are starting to be lifted, the news from Ukraine and the looming cost of living crisis has tipped us into stress and anxiety again. Stress is being driven by those of working age and is partly seasonal but is highest for some years.

In extreme situations, like people are experiencing, or watching close friends, relatives and communities experience in Ukraine, building wellbeing is different, and difficult. We think there should be work looking at this in response to disasters. We have looked at wellbeing in more difficult circumstances including in financial hardship and living with terminal illness. Social connection with others, and through culture such as by singing and eating together, seems to be key to help people to cope in these extreme circumstances, including feeling loved, safe and fulfilled. 

In this blog, our Executive Director, Nancy Hey takes us through the findings of the latest World Happiness Report, published last week, and talks about what the evidence tells us will help us to cope in situations that are beyond our control.


World Happiness Report 2022

The 10th World Happiness Report was published last week and shows overall:

  • There has been growth in both real GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy.
  • Fairly constant levels of social support, less perceived corruption, and substantial average growth in the extent to which people feel they have freedom to make key life choices. Trust in public institutions has generally grown since 2012.
  • Worry and sadness have been rising over the past ten years, and especially during 2020, the first year of Covid-19, before improving somewhat in 2021. 
  • There have been trend increases in national-average stress levels in all ten global regions, with its steepest increase in 2020, to a level that persisted through 2021.
  • The current gap in life evaluations between Western and Eastern Europe is now less than half what it was ten years ago. Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia having the largest increases in life evaluations.
  • Life evaluations in:
    • Asia show some growth in East and Southeast Asia, and drops since 2010 in South Asia grew until 2012.
    •  Latin America grew, while falling slightly since, especially in 2020. 
    • MENA region have been falling, while being fairly constant for Sub Saharan Africa.
  • Wellbeing inequality has generally been growing since 2011, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia.
  • Smiling or laughing a lot during the previous day is the most common of all the components of either positive or negative affect on happiness, and has been on a rising trend over the past 15 years, slipping slightly during the pandemic years 2020 and 2021. 
  • The size of the increase since 2017-2019 in the helping of strangers has doubled from 2020 to 2021, and is now accompanied by significant increases in donations and volunteering.
  • Positive emotions have generally been twice as prevalent as negative ones. That gap has been narrowing over the past ten years, with enjoyment and laughter on a negative trend in most regions and worry and sadness on rising trends.
  • Covid-19 has exposed but not increased pre-existing differences between males and females, employed and unemployed, those in good health and bad, and those with low and high incomes.
  • Over the five most recent years, positive emotions as a whole remained more than twice as frequent as negative ones, and greater for the young than the old.

How do we cope when we are stressed and unhappy?

Back in January 2021, we published research into what helped the UK cope with the covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns

The findings are relevant for coping strategies in general and will help us cope with the rising levels of stress and anxiety that we are seeing again now.

  • Staying connected to friends and family was the most important coping mechanism identified.
  • Gardening and exercise had the biggest association with supporting people’s wellbeing, while following Covid-19 related news had the most negative effects on our wellbeing.
  • Some people have also used arts and cultural engagement as a way to cope because they increase feelings of control, enjoyment and connection.
  • Work is important too. Wellbeing isn’t just relaxing and having fun, employment is one of the biggest drivers of our wellbeing, especially if you are in a good job.
  • Ultimately, different people have different coping strategies. Some of us prefer to problem solve, while some of us try to avoid our difficulties. Others rely on emotional reframing or the social support of their friends and family. 

  • Laughter is the quickest way to spread joy, but emotion focused coping isn’t the only type of strategy that is necessary for high wellbeing. Feeling good AND functioning well is important, so our coping strategies need to help us do both, which is why ‘helping’ behaviours like volunteering, or getting involved with hobbies and interests are a great response.
  • Action like this also contributes to shared positive emotion, relationship building, trust and social connection, which also matters for wellbeing. Our recent research looks at community wellbeing and how it is linked to the wellbeing of the individuals within that community, so that VCSE groups can understand how their interventions might affect different people in different places.

Gender and age differences

We find that the life satisfaction gap between men and women has decreased in the last ten years, but that the anxiety gap has increased.  

The age curve on happiness is driven largely by social connections but made up of different aspects for young and old. For younger people being active and learning drives their wellbeing. For older people, it’s taking notice and giving.

What can the government and workplaces do?

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