Recent reports on global human progress over the past 50 years claim the world is getting better, but they give only a small piece of the story. The Millennium Development Goals Project (MDG) Reports of the United Nations and the Gates Foundation Annual Letter claim that poverty has gone down sharply in the past 25 years. Based on this and related trends, the reports infer that global wellbeing has been getting better. New evidence supports the opposite conclusion.
From the Gallup World Poll data, I discovered that the levels of suffering and related negative experiences have actually gone up in the past 8 years. If you look only at economic data, you would expect suffering to be declining.
The trend-line chart above shows the slow but steady rise in global suffering across the past 9 years beginning with 2006. Look at the bottom line first, which is labeled “Suffering Index.” (The last paragraph of this article explains this Gallup Suffering Index.) In brief, this measures the percent of people in the world who express an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with life. That is why I sometimes refer to it as ‘extreme suffering.’ The Gallup World Poll data presented here come from peoples’ perceptions, which are influenced by expectations for desired wellbeing and progress.
The other two trend lines measure the degree of daily stress and physical pain. Daily stress was derived from a survey questions that asked respondents to recall whether or not they felt ‘stress’ throughout the previous day. ‘Physical pain’ replaced ‘stress’ to create the third metric.
From the chart’s three lines as a set, you can see that the pattern of rising distress persists for these three metrics across the past 8 years. Although the rise in suffering is not steep, the upward trend is consistent and quite steady.
Implications of Declining Global Well-Being.
In both everyday and academic conversation 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.
The 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 partial 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 small increments in 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 may be 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.
This 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.
Now we examine a few select countries to show how suffering is so unequally distributed across the globe. This table below contrasts Tanzania and Canada.
Canada was used for a baseline comparison with Tanzania rather than the US because Canada in 2010 had about the same population size as Tanzania. However, Tanzania’s population is rising very fast. At the current growth rate of 3%, it doubles its population every 13 years. (See 2nd row of the table.) Rapid population growth may cancel out any gains in well-being due to income growth or other social change, because the resource gains have to be shared with more people.
The difference in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Per Capita for Tanzania and the USA is huge but typical of the economic difference between developed and developing nations. If you look at the suffering indicators in the last three rows of the table, you will see that Tanzania suffers considerably more than Canada. Canada has a huge edge over Tanzania on both the Gallup Well-Being Index and the Gallup Suffering Index. However, on ‘yesterday’s felt pain’ Canada’s advantage is relatively small. Canada’s life expectancy is 20 years longer than Tanzania’s, but while there is something to be said for living longer, people in later life suffer a lot more than those in early adulthood.
This bar chart adds more perspective to comparisons between countries using their Suffering Index values. Starting from the bottom, note that the percent suffering in Canada is only 1% while it is 3% in the United States, which reflects the more charitable social policies in Canada, compared to the United States. These estimates indicate that this measure underestimates suffering in rich cities and countries. That is why several indicators, such as those in the very first chart, are needed when doing these kinds of comparisons.
Compared to the North American countries, Tanzania and Afghanistan have many times lesser suffering, which testifies to the tremendous suffering advantage of the USA and Canada. Tanzania has a major advantage over Afghanistan even though Tanzania falls within the bottom fifth of the global nations in terms of human development.
The GDP per capita for Afghanistan and Tanzania are nearly equal, so Tanzania’s greater suffering illustrates the strength of non-economic factors such as violence, conflict, civil war, and civil society institutions, which play such a major role in generating or curtailing suffering.
The most important conclusion to draw from these findings is that economic progress cannot be automatically equated with progress in 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,” 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.