Unhappiness continued to rise worldwide in 2021, as the world overall became a sadder, more worried and more stressed-out place. But in two countries — Afghanistan and Lebanon — more people were living in misery than anywhere else on the planet.
Last year, Afghanistan and Lebanon posted the two highest scores in the world — 59 and 58 — on Gallup's Negative Experience Index, which is a composite measure of people's daily experiences of sadness, stress, worry, anger and physical pain. Higher scores on the index mean more of a population is experiencing these emotions.
The high scores for Afghanistan and Lebanon in 2021 notably displaced Iraq — which still ranked among the top most miserable countries — from the No. 1 spot on the Negative Experience Index that it had occupied for the two previous years. Iraq posted scores similar to Afghanistan's and Lebanon's current scores throughout its war against the Islamic State group.
Most of the countries with the highest scores on the Negative Experience Index were contending with some type of economic or political instability in 2021 that is mirrored in their emotional health.
When Gallup surveyed Afghanistan as the Taliban retook control last year and as the U.S. withdrew its troops, Afghans' emotional state reflected the chaos and uncertainty. Worry, stress and sadness soared to record-high levels in Afghanistan and were the highest in the world in 2021: 80% of Afghans were worried, 74% were stressed, and 61% were sad. Notably, no other population in the world has ever reported feeling this worried in the history of Gallup's trend.
In Lebanon, political instability and government ineffectiveness have become the norm, but the country's latest economic meltdown has been harder on people than any of its struggles since the civil war. The quality of life has deteriorated so much that 63% of Lebanese adults said they would like to leave the country permanently if they could — this desire is even stronger among those experiencing negative emotions.
As life in Lebanon became harder, negative emotions surged to record highs. Nearly three in four people (74%) said in 2021 that they experienced stress "a lot of the day" during the previous day. About half of people in Lebanon also said they experienced a lot of sadness (56%) and anger (49%). Lebanon led the world in anger in 2021.
There are two parts to subjective wellbeing: how someone sees their life and how they live their life. The first part is an overall assessment of their life (life evaluation); the second is how they experience their life each day (their emotions). Both are important because they measure different things, and together they provide deeper insight into people's lives.
Afghan and Lebanese adults' ratings of their lives in 2021 painted an even more miserable picture of their current conditions. In addition to having the worst emotional health in the world in 2021, Afghans and Lebanese also rated their lives the worst, with Afghans rating their lives a 2.4 on a scale from zero to 10 (where 10 is the best possible life and zero is the worst) and Lebanese adults rating their lives a 2.2.
Afghans' place at the bottom of the rankings is not new. On average, Afghans have rated their lives lower than a 3 since 2017. But Lebanon's presence on the lowest life ratings list is a more recent phenomenon.
From 2006 to 2018, Lebanese rated their lives about a 5 out of a possible 10, on average. Starting in 2019, those ratings collapsed, falling to 4.0 in 2019, 2.6 in 2020 and 2.2 in 2021. Gallup's 2019 survey in Lebanon was conducted one month after the Oct. 17 revolution, and the 2020 survey was conducted a few months after the Beirut port explosion.
To bring these data into sharper relief, while 24% of adults worldwide rated their lives a 3 out of 10 or lower, 72% of Lebanese adults and 87% of Afghan adults rated their lives the same way.
In the second year of the pandemic, people were living with even more uncertainty than the previous year — with more people dying from COVID-19 despite the rollout of vaccines. Yet, the pandemic is not entirely to blame for the increase in negative emotions. Gallup's data show that the world has been on a negative trajectory for a decade.
Gallup's latest book, Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, which comes out next week, investigates why the world is on its current course and what leaders can do about it.
Read a book excerpt on the outcomes of unhappiness or find out more about the book.
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