Books by Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling, among others, and reports from the World Bank and the UN, all argue that world poverty has dropped dramatically, and the world is a lot better. But they give only a small piece of the story. World poverty has declined rapidly in the past two decades, but according to the UNDP 2020 reports, 600 million people still live in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.90 income per day. Over a half billion people is a very large number. The worst part of the picture is that most of the extreme poverty exists in Sub-Saharan Africa and that population is rising rapidly. Most presume that since poverty statistics are improving, global well-being must be rising, but it is not. In fact, negative emotional experiences are rising at the rate of 1-percent per year. That evidence comes from the Gallup World Poll.
From the Gallup World Poll, I discovered that levels of stress and pain, as well as negative emotions, have actually gone up in the past 12 years at the rate of about 1-percent per year.
The trend-line chart below shows the slow but steady rise in negative experiences across all countries of the world beginning with 2006. People were asked if they had experienced “physical pain during a lot of the day yesterday,” and worldwide a over a third responded “yes.” As the trendline for “pain” shows, this was a rise or gain of nine points (9-percent) above its level in 2007. Feeling pain “a lot of the day” suggests substantial pain and suffering. We can infer also that a huge number of people worldwide are suffering significant pain, and that the number feeling pain was much greater in 2018 than in 2006.
Similar questions asked about “stress,” and about each of the following negative emotions: worry, sadness and anger. “Worry” produced an even higher affirmative response than stress or pain. From these findings it is evident that daily negative experiences in general are rising across the globe. In the chart the line labeled “Index” is the average of the five negative emotions or experiences. Since 2010, the tendency to suffer from these negative emotions or experiences has risen 8 points. In brief, this measures the percent of people in the world who express an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with life. Although the rise in suffering is not steep, the upward trend of these lines is consistent and remarkably steady. A quick glance at the trendlines in the chart reveal that upward swing in negative emotions and pain and suffering.
The rising negative experiences of the past decade was the most pronounced in Africa and selected countries in Asia. This is especially troubling in light of demographic projections that predict that many of these countries will see their populations triple in size over the next 75 years. And this rise in population will almost inevitably bring more suffering.
Implications of Declining Global Well-Being.
In both every day and academic conversations, the words ‘suffering’ and ‘well-being’ are used as opposites. Suffering equates to negative well-being or ‘ill-being.’ In fact, suffering serves as one of the most powerful indicators of negative well-being. Thus, the rise in global suffering signals a decline in global well-being. 6The Gallup World Poll gives us solid, data-grounded evidence that global well-being has been declining at the same time that economic well-being rises. How can this apparent contradiction between social and economic progress be explained?
One explanation might be that the steep decline in world poverty largely ended by 2006 but poor peoples’ expectations of rising out of poverty did not end. Another strong possibility is that the rise in hourly wages around the globe has been so small that it has not made a serious dent in global well-being. The evidence many economists have used to show world poverty reduction has been an increase in the daily earnings from less than $1.25 per day to more than $1.25 per day. Because this is roughly equivalent to increasing the hourly wage from 15 cents per hour to 20 cents per hour, the change is too trivial to significantly improve access to adequate healthcare or in other such ways improve wellbeing.
Perhaps that most compelling explanation is that very small increments in income or wealth alone cannot produce the changes in social and political institutions that are needed to reduce widespread discrimination, inequality, violence, and other violations of human rights. It is easy to make the false assumption that progress in economic indicators automatically improves social wellbeing. However, such a conclusion by policy decision makers will yield failed socio-economic policies, especially those related to social development.
The discovery that global suffering has been going up has the following implications: (1) Claims of global progress should be qualified by noting the recent rise in suffering and hence the decline in well-being. (2) Humanitarians now have measures of suffering that reinforce the importance of their efforts to reduce suffering. (3) With this and other suffering metrics, it will be possible to better evaluate the effectiveness of programs with the potential to alleviate suffering.
Americans and Greeks Among the Most Stressed
In this same study, Gallup found that among the most stressed people in the world were the Iranians, the Tanzanians and those from the Philippines. But so were the Americans and the Greeks with nearly two thirds in those countries reporting to have been stressed most of yesterday. Stress cannot be written off as being part of an highly industrialized or wealthy economy, because none of the other high GDP or high-income countries were highly stressed.
One clue to American stress is that the most stressed Americans were among the poorest 20% and in the 18-49 age group. Among the wealthiest countries, the United States stands out as having the greatest inequality and the largest share of people living in poverty.
Comparing Pain and Suffering of Specific Nations.
Gallup’s annual world poll reported in 2019 that Chad had the most “pain-stricken and sad people in the world.” Two-thirds of them when surveyed said that they had experienced physical pain during most of the previous day. And over half said they had felt sad through much of yesterday. In recent years Chadians have suffered frequent killings by Boko Haram as well as other regional fighting groups. Chad is one of five African nations in the Sahel region that has suffered from frequent attacks by militant Islamic groups. Chad, a nation of 13 million, has a reputation as one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
For several years, Iran and Iraq have remained on Gallup’s list of top five countries with the “Highest Negative Experiences,” according to the Gallup Global Emotions annual reports. Not only did these two countries have a lot of people feeling stressed and angry but nearly half reported feeling worried and sad. In the past two years these two countries experienced bombings, mass protests and other chaos producing events over and over. The Iraqi Insurgency continues with mostly Sunni rebel groups fighting the Shia-led Government. Many in Iran and Iraq suffer from unemployment, poverty and poor access to health services. Both Iran and Iraq as well as Chad have huge refugee populations. The population of Chad is 15 million, Iraq 38 million, and Iran has 82 million.
Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from these findings is that economic progress cannot be automatically equated with progress in social well-being. Wealth can contribute to quality of life, but it can also add to negative quality of life especially when its growth is one of the forces underlying major social inequality.
GDP-based economic indicators remain the dominant metrics of human well-being. Adding measures of suffering, as well as other measures of community and societal quality of life would help to refocus upon the other values people care about. Robert Kennedy once said that “GDP does not consider the health of our children.” Neither does GDP reflect our wisdom or compassion. In short, “it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Gallup World Poll Data. The charts above capture findings from 1,250,000 interviews in 150 countries representing 98% of the world population across the past eight years. In each year and each country a minimum of 1,000 randomly selected adults are interviewed for the Gallup World Poll. Interviews are conducted in respondent’s native language in person or by phone. For this article, the data were retrieved through the Gallup Analytics portal. More details can be obtained from the Poll’s Methodology Report.
Gallup’s “Suffering Index” is based upon a series of questions that measure respondents’ perceptions of where they stand, now and in the future. Individuals who rate their current lives as an average of “4” or lower are defined as ‘suffering.’ All other individuals are considered ‘not suffering.’ Their objective with this index is to identify persons with such extreme dissatisfaction with their lives that they, in fact, are suffering.