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Keep calm and carry on in 2021

In 2020, the world was a sadder, angrier, more worried and more stressed-out place than it has been at any time in the past 15 years
A Filipino family in Cavite City, the Philippines

2020 held the dubious distinction of being the most stressful year in recent world history. The 2021 Global Emotions report by Gallup reported that 40% of surveyed adults had experienced worry or stress. While the increase in 2020 was only a 5% increase from 2019 levels, it still represented an added 190 million people who felt stressed-out last year.

“Historically, political and economic turmoil are often the backdrop of rising negative emotions…In the absence of this turmoil, four other things may be contributing to this global rise in negative emotions: increasing global hunger, a lack of freedom, rising corruption and income inequality,” writes Jon Clifton, global managing partner at Gallup.

Peru reported the highest percentage (66%) of respondents who were stressed. Meanwhile, only 13% of respondents from Kyrgyzstan reported being stressed in 2020. Exhibit 1 shows how certain economies in Asia—such as China, Mongolia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia—reported a decline of 10 or more points in their stress levels in 2020.

Exhibit 1: Increase and decrease of stress levels in 2020

Less smiles amid an air of gloom

The past year also registered fewer laughs and smiles with fewer people saying they laughed or smiled as much. The report found that the number of people who “smiled or laughed a lot” dropped from 75% to 70% – hitting the lowest level in a 15-year trend. Senegal, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, Iceland and South Africa were the top five countries, with over 80% of its population having laughed a lot the previous day. Meanwhile, the countries that fared the worst were Turkey, Bangladesh, Nepal, Lebanon and Serbia – with over 50% of its population not smiling or laughing the previous day.

Exhibit 2: Increase and decrease of smiles and laughs in 2020

Positive experiences

Despite the gloom in 2020, what was commendable was people’s positive experiences. The report found that the global positive experience index score remained at 71, similar to past scores in 2018 and 2019. About seven in ten people (72%) felt well-rested and experienced enjoyment, while nearly nine out of ten (86%) people said they were treated with respect.

Exhibit 3: Positive experience index in 2020

Countries with the highest and lowest positive experiences

El Salvador leads the world with the highest positive experience index score of 82. The Philippines ranked second with a score of 81, followed by New Zealand with a total of 79. These were also the only two Asia-Pacific countries to feature among the top 10 rankings.

Regionally, Latin American countries boasted the highest incidences of people reporting “a lot of positive experiences each day”.

Exhibit 4: Top 10 countries with the highest positive experiences

Meanwhile, Lebanon and Turkey, with 46 points each, recorded the lowest positive experiences globally. Both countries had the lowest scores in the index owing to economic and political turmoil that had begun well before the pandemic struck.

Lebanon, in particular, was also affected by a devastating explosion in Beirut in August 2020. And the added blow of COVID-19 has further dampened hopes of a quick rebound. A surprise entry to this lower end of the positive index is South Korea with a score of 61. It is followed by several other Asia-Pacific economies such as Bangladesh (58), Pakistan (58) and Nepal (56).

Exhibit 5: The 10 countries with the least positive experience scores

Negative experiences

Although the global positive score remained unchanged in 2020, the global negative experience index score rose to 32 – the highest level registered in the past 15 years. There is a gradual increase in negative emotions that could be due to several socioeconomic and environmental factors. These may not necessarily be an outcome of the pandemic although its wider impacts cannot be overlooked. Across the world, people were more upset, worried and stressed in 2020. Four in ten respondents reported being worried or stressed.

Exhibit 6: Negative experience index in 2020

Countries with the highest and lowest negative experiences

With a score of 53, Iraq saw the highest incidence of negative experiences. Respondents from the country led the world in “experiencing pain (56%), anger (51%) and sadness (50%)”. The economic and political turmoil faced by the top 10 countries in the negative experiences index was further heightened by the pandemic’s onset. Interestingly, the majority of countries with high negative experiences were located in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Exhibit 7: Top 10 countries with the highest negative experiences

Countries or territories such as Taiwan (13), Kazakhstan (15) and Mauritius (17) had the lowest negative experiences in 2020. Countries with low scores on the negative experiences index does not necessarily imply they have the highest positive experiences. Other than Taiwan, the only other Asian entrant that featured among countries with the least negative experiences was Japan; it scored 23.

Exhibit 8: The 10 countries with the least negative experience scores

It is necessary to maintain an air of calm

With the pandemic continuing to affect daily life, it must be acknowledged that a large majority of people worldwide have been affected by COVID-19, one way or another. Despite the odds, it is necessary to remain calm as recoveries begin to gradually set in.

On a positive note, the report also showed that as much as 72% of respondents felt “a lot of calmness the previous day”. This feeling of calmness, however, displayed a wide variation even within the Asia-Pacific region – from as low as 34% in Nepal to a high of 93% in Vietnam.

Exhibit 9: Calmness around the world

Vietnam’s level of calmness and efforts in limiting the pandemic’s impacts is commendable. It serves as an example of how—despite being close to the crisis’ epicentre—the country was able to contain the spread of COVID-19 more effectively than most other economies.

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