Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, with Jon Clifton

Dec 14, 2022 57 min listen

Although pundits and politicians pay close attention to measures like GDP or unemployment, almost no one tracks citizens' wellbeing. Gallup CEO Jon Clifton discusses this "blind spot" in his new book and in this virtual event with Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev. How did it lead to events like the Arab Spring uprisings or the election of Donald Trump? How can leaders close this important information gap and begin to incorporate wellbeing and happiness indicators?

Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, with Jon Clifton

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep Book Talks. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow here at Carnegie Council, very excited today to welcome Jon Clifton from Gallup about his new book Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It. Here is my well-read copy. I have lots of questions for you, and we welcome audience questions as well.

This might be my favorite book of the year, Jon, because it captures what I think people need to be talking more about—local sentiment, what people are thinking, what people are feeling, and how people are living their lives. Boom. Period. I think that is what, as you point out in this book, what global leaders are missing and CEOs are missing. Hopefully you are implementing all of the recommendations in your book at your company, Jon. You will have to review your book with your colleagues at Gallup.

Today we want to share with our audience some of the findings from your book and some of the recommendations because I think what makes your book a little bit different is that there are actually action items we can take away today and go forward with.

In terms of the biggest takeaway for me—and I think this will speak to a lot of people in our audience too—is that, "The top 20 percent of the world could hardly be doing better, and the bottom 20 percent could hardly be doing worse." I think that quote encapsulated this book and what is going on globally today.

I love the global nature of this book and how we are not just going to be talking about the United States here today. We are talking about how this effort spans the world. Here at The Doorstep that is what we try to do. We try to look at the world and the impact here at home. On so many levels this book is important and should be in everybody's holiday stocking this year.

Can you share with us the genesis of this book and your goals for it as a way to start off the conversation?

JON CLIFTON: Absolutely. First, Nick and Tatiana, thank you for having me. It means a lot to us at Gallup that you are helping us give a voice to the world in terms of how everyone feels.

We started doing this work about 15 years ago, and when I say "this work" we started capturing and quantifying how the entire world feels. Why? Because leaders everywhere have done an incredible job in terms of quantifying whether or not their economies are growing or contracting, they have done an incredible job figuring out whether or not the labor force is growing or getting smaller, but what they are not doing a very good job on is capturing at a large scale how people feel, and we think that is a problem. The reason we think it is a problem is because the way people feel is often what determines how they act, and right now people do not feel very well.

The reason for that is because we wanted to know how much stress there is in the world, how much anger, and how much pain, so we started capturing that by going out into people's homes. In about 40 countries we called people, but in the other 100 countries we showed up at their houses and we sat for a very long conversation and asked them: "Tell us about whether or not you have a lot of stress, whether or not you have a lot of anger, and whether or not you experience a lot of worry."

What we found is that over the past ten years all of those negative emotions have had a steady rise, and it has us very concerned, which is why we wrote this book because we wanted to tell the world that this rise of misery did not start with the pandemic. It started eight years before. While the pandemic collectively made us miserable, it exacerbated an already rising problem.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that point is so important and tells a lot about how people can make their voices heard to leaders in politics. I think you have some very telling examples in the book. You lead off with an example in Tunisia and the Arab Spring. Could you walk us through that as a lens into how what people are feeling does impact protesting and governments, etc.?

JON CLIFTON: There is a story that goes around here in Washington—I wonder if it is even true—that apparently President Obama actually said to James Clapper, "Why is it that we spend billions of dollars on intelligence but no one could have told me that the Arab Spring was coming?” Whether or not the story is true it creates an interesting question: Why did we miss it? With all the intelligence that we have, with the satellite imagery that we have on every single country and with what we have learned from at least Edward Snowden and a number of others is that America reads the emails of many world leaders so we know what is happening in terms of leader-to-leader dialogue, we know what is happening in terms of satellite imagery, and we know what all economic indicators look like, so why is it that we do not fully understand what is happening within countries? I think one of the single biggest gaps is that we are not capturing how people feel on a large-scale basis.

It took place in Tunisia. If you look back at the Human Development Index, which tells us whether or not a country is developing, they use three indicators. They use income, education, and life expectancy. All those things showed perfect progress over a five-year period of time, but when we asked people how their lives were going it was crashing.

What was the disconnect? Because if everything objectively told us that things were going well yet people, their own subjective will or intent, told us something very different, why is it that we had so little curiosity about how people felt when all we wanted to do was rely on these traditional economic indicators?

I think there is a massive opportunity for leaders everywhere, not just from an intel perspective but also from a how do we make people's lives better perspective, because how human beings feel hugely matters in terms of how their lives are going, and we see it is getting worse.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I am struck by that because it is true that governments, intelligence analysts, and others focus on these concrete economic indicators, in part because they are quantifiable in a way that is easy. We can say, "Your gross domestic product (GDP) has grown, your GDP per capita has shrunk, national income is up, and infant mortality is down," but your point here about not translating this into how people experience and understand what is happening in their lives, and we see that I think in our own context where we have this puzzlement about degree of prosperity in the United States and yet these feelings of disconnection, these feelings of anger, the fact that the 2016 and 2020 elections did not necessarily go the way that the economic indicators—or the 2022 elections, for that matter—might have pointed.

When we look at the backgrounds of some of the people involved in January 6, we are not looking at dispossessed, landless farmers, and proletariat. We are looking at people who, by all indications, are living comfortable middle- and upper-middle-class lifestyles with second homes, boats, and expensive cars, and yet there is this sense of anger, this sense of malaise, or this sense of frustration.

What struck me then is the dating point. You said we are looking at something eight years or so before the pandemic, and I have heard others say that between 2012 and 2014 there does seem to be some inflection point. Something happened where we began to see the anger building up, the misery index going up, that is disconnected from economic performance.

In identifying this and doing this project what is your sense of what happened in the 2010s? Is this a hangover of the global economic crisis? Is this Instagram? The argument has been that the jump in teen suicides started after Instagram was released. Do we have a sense of what might be driving this?

JON CLIFTON: It is not economics. Let me start with the social media question because that is a question that a lot of people have, especially when you look at what we call the "widening gap of well-being inequality." We ask people to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 being the best possible life and 0 the worst possible life, and where do they stand today? Fifteen years ago we found that roughly 3.5 percent of people said, "My life is perfect, I have a 10," and there were about 1.5 percent who said: "My life is the worst possible life. It can't get any worse."

Fast-forward to today, and the percentage of people who say my life is a perfect 10 has more than doubled. It is now 8 percent, and the percentage of people who say, "My life can't get any worse," has more than quadrupled. It too is at about 8 percent, so again you are seeing this widening inequality of well-being that is taking place. If you look at the top quintile and the lower quintile, it is even more pronounced.

One thing would be to lay this on social media and say, "Well, that is of course the exact same time as when social media is taken up." It is hard for us to definitively answer that question because we are not asking about social media behavior, whether or not people are using it frequently, but what we are asking is access to the Internet, and we can see that negative emotions—anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry—are rising for people who are online, but for the 30 percent of people who are not online it is rising for them too. That would be at least a data point that would suggest that we not overly blame social media for this one particular cause only because there is one-third of humanity that is not linked into social media, and they are seeing a lot more pain in their daily lives.

The question then becomes, "Well, what do you think it is?" Again, all we can do is look to see what we see in our data and if there are any other connections that we can make. We are asking others to look at this information and inviting them to draw any conclusions of their own, but three things stand out.

Number one is the global rise of hunger. While the world has been winning the war on hunger for four decades we started to lose in 2014, and moderate to severe hunger has been rising since 2014. We work on that with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and it has been a concerning trend. People are getting hungrier, and it is not just moderate food insecurity; it is severe food insecurity, which is arguably the worst kind, one step before debilitating hunger that leads to death.

The other two are workplaces. Right now workplaces continue to be completely miserable. We find of those who actually have jobs only 20 percent of them are thriving at work, which means 80 percent are not, and 20 percent of the workforce is completely miserable. Every single minute they spend at work makes their life worse. In fact, when we compare the anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry of those workers compared to those who have no work whatsoever, the unemployed, they are the same. If anything, of the people who are totally miserable at work, their daily pain is slightly worse than those who are unemployed. I think it is one of the most significant findings that we have had in Gallup's global tracking history. That pain is very real and it is hardly getting better, and at least in the United States we have seen it get worse since the start of the pandemic.

The last aspect is loneliness. You can see in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries that there is a commitment to understanding loneliness and to understanding loneliness's impact on the rise of suicides, but it is underappreciated globally. In many countries if you ask, "What percent of people live in debilitating loneliness," countries like Tanzania or Peru, the data does not exist, and that is a problem. One of the things we are working toward is creating the world's official statistics for loneliness so we can have a better understanding of what percent of the people are truly suffering from this massive societal issue.

TATIANA SERAFIN: This fits in nicely with how you are exploring these issues. When you are looking at well-being overall—well-being equated to happiness—it is five areas. The way the book is broken up is into these five areas. I do want to focus on the three areas you mention—loneliness, food insecurity, and work, starting with work though because it is not just about as you write in the book rising dissatisfaction with work. Also you write about the global jobs crisis. It is about the quality of the jobs that people have.

I want to relate that this is very real. I shared your book with my politics class where I teach, and all of the students said they were unhappy. You have real-world feedback on your book. All of them are unhappy. I asked why, and they did mention jobs. None of my students expect to get a job with their degree. We can go into your second, which is financial, because all of them are also experiencing huge student debt. This is going to impact them. As you write, even if you pay off your debt, that lingering mental effect of having the debt in the first place is going to impact your life.

This is maybe where we can start going into recommendations so that we do have some positives along with some of this data that we are getting that can feel overwhelming. How do we create a focus on the quality of jobs? Nick, you mentioned that we have this data that tells us what is real.

Actually, Jon, I liked your discussion that employment data is flawed. How many people are unemployed at any given time is related to all different sorts of factors, and it might not be the way we should be looking at data in the first place. How can we create better jobs data and encourage governments and, encourage CEOs to work toward that aspect because, as you say in the book, we spend 13 years-plus of our lives at work.

JON CLIFTON: Forgive me for this, but if you do not mind, Nick, I was answering your question and there was one thing I wanted to mention. When we think about what has happened over the past ten years, as a human being if you start to have no hope for a great job, you mix that in with hunger within societies, because remember, even in a place like the United States there are millions of people who are still part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, as they have been traditionally referred to. When you mix those in with the perception that you cannot get ahead, you feel like the system is working against you, so one of the questions that we ask in as many countries as possible is, "Do you think corruption is widespread in your government?" The other question we ask is: "Do you think corruption is widespread in the businesses in your country?" The way those numbers continue to hover above 70 percent shows that people have this growing frustration where they do not feel like anything is going to improve for them, and they feel like the systems are working against them.

It does not have to be this way. There are countries where very few percentages of people are saying that they think corruption is widespread in their businesses or in their government, but too many feel this way, and I think that is what one of the concerns is.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think sometimes listeners say, "Of course I expect to get those answers in Uganda, Bangladesh, or Peru," but can you give us a sense of what the U.S. numbers are when Americans are asked that?

JON CLIFTON: Let's give two examples, the United States and Germany. In both countries, if you look at our data about 15 years ago, they are almost the same. About 55 percent of people in both countries said that they felt that corruption was widespread in their government. That number started to rise dramatically in the United States, and now it has hung at about 75 percent for a very long time, whereas in Germany, at least up until the past two years, it dropped significantly. Way fewer Germans were saying that they thought that corruption was widespread.

The point is that it is possible that it does not have to be that way because I agree with you that there are a lot of people who look at that information and go: "Everybody thinks corruption is widespread in their government. Everybody thinks it's widespread in businesses." It's not true. It does not always have to be that way, and we have seen times in our database when that was not the case.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Going back to our broken workplaces, I do think where people feel the most pain is where they spend the most time, as you point out in your book. What are some things that we can do to work on these issues and to get better data so that we are not looking at this weird number of—here in the United States, for example, there is a low unemployment rate, there are "Help Wanted" signs everywhere, but they are not the great jobs that we want to be working at.

JON CLIFTON: It is a great point. It is not to say that the unemployment number is a terrible number. The unemployment figure that so many labor force surveys produce is probably a quite reliable figure for wealthy countries, but one of the places that it does not serve its constituents well is in poorer countries.

If you look anywhere—and you can just google this as an activity now—google the countries that have the lowest unemployment rates in the world. On that list you will see some of the poorest countries in the world. Why? It is because so many people are wrongfully categorized as self-employed. There are people who might be selling trinkets on the street. They could be a subsistence farmer. They are doing it out of necessity, not out of opportunity, and in the West we confuse and conflate these terms of "entrepreneurship" and "self-employment.” When we hear "self-employment," we think, Man, that is going to be the next creator of a huge, multi-billion-dollar organization or we think of somebody who is demonstrating pride that they have opened up a restaurant down the street, they are going to be their own boss, and that is amazing.

That is not always true in many other countries, and quite frankly the statistics go too hard in terms of the percentage of people, so you can see very clearly that many of them are self-employed, and also a majority of them live on less than two dollars a day. That is a problem. Again, it is why places like Cuba have the top-15 lowest unemployment rates in the world or places like Burundi.

A fix to that is rather than say to governments around the world, "Hey, let's work to the lowest common denominator of work, where we should reduce the amount of people who say they have no work whatsoever and want work,"—which is what unemployment is—and instead, "Let's see what percent of great jobs we can create." Again, this is a suggestion. What I recommend in the book—I am very open about this too—is that it may not be perfect, so if there are others who think we should add components to it, let's do it.

Today what a great job looks like is steady work, a paycheck, and the subjective attitudes that you have the ability to do what you do best, that you have colleagues that you enjoy working with, that you have the development opportunities you need in order to learn and grow every single day, and that you get the recognition that you deserve for doing great work. These fundamentals—I guess you could call them Maslow's "hierarchy of needs at work"—are nonexistent, they need to be far more present, and that is what we could contribute to creating the world's official statistics for great jobs.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That resonated with me, studying workplace environments. Also, the connection you make with financial well-being.

Before we get into our other areas I would like you to explain to our audience how you look at the questions of "How do you see life?" and "How do you live your life?" because I do think those are two separate but very important concepts in the book. You say it over and over again, and I had to keep reading it to understand what they meant. For our readers the questions are not being asked about a scale of 1 to 10, but there is a difference between how you see things and how you live them and why. Can you talk more about that?

JON CLIFTON: Absolutely. That is a fantastic question because measuring someone's well-being is as complicated and nuanced as understanding whether or not an economy is growing or contracting. Of course when we think of GDP there are multiple components on government spending and how big is the consumer-based economy. Similarly when we are looking at people's lives we have to measure different components.

The way that we do this is we start with a definition, and we define subjective well-being as how someone sees their life and how someone lives their life. These are two very different constructs—much of it rooted the work of in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who is of course known as the father of behavioral economics—because how you remember life is very different than how you experience life. So we are trying to capture both concepts. The way that we get at how you see your life is that we ask people to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 is the best possible life and 0 is the worst possible life and where do you stand today?

When we rank those countries, the countries that rate their lives the highest are often the richest. That is why when you hear "the world's happiest countries," the use of the word "happy" may be a misnomer because what you are probably looking at are the countries where people are the most content, and it is why places like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are often number one on that list and the countries at the bottom are places like Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan. They rate their lives the absolute worst in the world.

On the other side of the ledger is how people experience life. That is whether or not they have a lot of stress every day and whether or not they have a lot of sadness. It is also whether or not they laugh and smile a lot or whether or not they have a great deal of intellectual stimulation, which we have attempted to capture through asking people whether or not they learned or did something interesting the day before the interview. When we look at the results of that they are very different than how people see their lives.

The part of the world that experiences the most negative emotions—it has been true every single year in the 15 to 16 years we have been tracking this—is the Middle East. Iran and Iraq have almost always been number one and number two on that particular list.

On the other side of that ledger, which is positive emotions—whether or not people laugh and smile a lot, experience a lot of enjoyment, whether or not they feel well-rested or treated with respect—the region of the world that dominates that, which has been true for 16 straight years, is Latin America. You could argue that no one in the world knows how to have more fun than Latin Americans. That is what the measurements look like and why they are different.

So when people approach us and they go, "I need a definitive list on who the happiest people in the world are," our response to them is always: "Well, that depends on how you define happiness," because if you define it through contentment, then yes, indeed, Danes, Finns, and Swedes are the happiest people in the world. But as you noticed in the book when that gets launched—it is Gallup's data that are used in the World Happiness Report—it is very confusing to many people in those countries. In fact after the results somebody said to an official, "What's it like to be a minister in the government of the country that is happiest in the world?"

He said, "If we're the happiest country in the world, I would hate to see the other countries."

The joke is funny because it's true. They do not see themselves as happy. I don't think any of them would argue the fact that they are very content.

Again, if you define happiness as contentment, then it is the Nordic countries, but if you define happiness as experiences of joy and laughter, then it is without question Latin America where people are the happiest.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That reminds of an anecdote that a Finn once told me about how in Finland they think Russians are too happy. I think that gets at this point of contentment versus experience of positive emotions and the like.

That also has policy implications I think because you have seen in a number of U.S. circles that we should be more like the Scandinavians, whether it is in education policy or employment policy, because this will make citizens happier, but I think this is a great point to throw out, that contentment versus happiness is defined as a continuous experience of positive emotions, laughter, and joy are separate things, and that may lead to very different policy outcomes and recommendations.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great launching point into your third area, which is community. Speaking of policies, you mention the rise in loneliness and how people feel about their communities, looking more at community indexes. I want to speak more about that especially because there were a couple of countries you mention in the book that have created ministries of loneliness to tackle this issue. I know the pandemic exacerbated discussions that people were more lonely, but you have actually seen a trend over time that the breakdown in communities—to your point, Nick, what policies do governments or corporations need to create better community vibes so that they are countering loneliness?

Can you speak to some of the things that you learned in the survey or in looking at some of these ministries of loneliness some things that they are doing to help on that community angle?

JON CLIFTON: There are two things. One of the biggest drivers is social well-being, and the other one is community well-being, and they are both incredibly important.

From a social well-being perspective it is a basic human need that you need social interaction, and we find in conducting these surveys that when we ask people, "Over the past two weeks how many people did you spend meaningful time with?" we had people say to us 150. We had people say to us 100. There were popular people we spoke with.

We also had people say zero. In fact one individual in Canada we spoke with, we randomly called him on his mobile phone and asked him about how his life was going. At the end of the survey, we asked, "How old are you?"

He said, "It's funny that you asked me my age because today is my birthday, and you are the only person I have spoken to all day."

It is because he experiences debilitating loneliness. He does not have anyone who reaches out to him to ask him how his day is going. That is a problem. Six percent of the entire world lives a life just like him.

It is not just about your quantity of friends, it is also your quality. We asked people about whether or not they had someone that they could rely on in times of need, and we find that 20 percent consistently do not have anyone they can count on in a time of need, and that is a problem. You are correct that your community could be some of those individuals who could help you in a time of need.

What we find is that what makes a great community is not just providing the basics. We find that a third of people everywhere, especially women, do not feel physically secure in their communities, and that is a problem. So it is not just making sure people feel safe. It is also about whether or not they have the fundamental basics, basics like education.

Even then, even if those are there, you also need people who help each other out, and quite frankly a lot of that is not taking place, people who give back financially, people who give back their time. The big one is whether or not they just help strangers, and much of that is absent around the world.

There still are bright spots. One of the places that I highlight in Blind Spot is The Gambia because The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, but when we ask them about whether or not they have given money to an organization, whether or not they have donated their time to an organization, or helped a stranger, they are one of the top ten countries in the world. Although some of the building blocks of a great community are not there because the basics aren't there, like feeling safe or whether or not they have the roads and infrastructure, the other building blocks are there because they have the people who make great communities, so there is a lot that the world can learn from a place like The Gambia.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In terms of community too you mentioned cultural differences in some of the research, and you mention that in Asian countries there is more of that community aspect because there is more collectivist thinking and you can rely more on your neighbor. Can you talk to how cultural differences come into play when you are asking these questions?

You do interviews in over 140 countries in over 80 languages, is that correct?

JON CLIFTON: That's right, yes.

Culture is a big topic for doing this because one of the things you will notice that we don't ask—and this is more of a linguistic issue than cultural, but of course culture and language have a lot to do with each other—is about the word "happy." We don't ask people if they are happy. We don't ask if they experience a lot of happiness, and the reason for that is that we have really struggled to be able to find a way that you can come up with words that convey the same concept in so many different languages and dialects, so it is not possible.

"Love" is another one. I don't mean to sound like a bumper sticker, but "love" is hard to translate. The way that we conduct the surveys, we started asking about whether or not people had experienced a lot of love the day previous to the interview. That question may cause a lot of people in the United States to think about whether or not they were called by their mom, their dad, their spouse, or their kids, who said, "I love you," etc., but the challenge is that in a lot of cultures that meant a physical aspect. You can ask anything you want in survey research, but it does not mean that what you are comparing are apples to oranges, and we experienced it with that, so it was an expensive mistake, if you will, but it is also something that allows us to learn a lot from this particular information.

I would say there are a lot of people who explain the results of our surveys using culture, and I think that is a mistake. A lot of times when we say, "In Latin America people are the most likely to express that they have experienced a lot of joy or laugh and smile a lot," and they will say, "Well, that's a cultural thing." Maybe it is and maybe it's not, but whatever the case is there is a lot that the rest of the world can learn from Latin America so that all of us can experience the same kind of joy that they do at the frequency that they do. I think it is pretty remarkable that this survey is able to uncover that.

The last thing I would say is that a lot of times people say that in East Asian societies when we find scores that are lower than you might expect again they hang it on culture and say that many are not as expressive about their anger, their stress, or their joy. If that is true, then why does it change? I say that because we do see some countries—for example, in China—where anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry has been rising for the last couple of years. If we had written it off as a cultural thing why these were superficially low—or again the assumption would be that they are low based on culture—then how do you explain the recent rise? I think that is something that we all need to focus on a little bit more and again why I think this has been in a blind spot for so many because they write this off for the wrong reasons.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's stick with China for a second. The protests there, I think—my hypothesis—show exactly what you are saying, that there is a discontentment and that it is more than just pandemic restrictions. It is a rise in feeling related to all of the topics we have discussed today—jobs, loneliness, isolation—and coming out and protesting in a society that is not known for allowing freedom of speech and expression in that way. I do think that is also why it is important to look at sentiments.

We have one comment in the chat from Stephen Young, but we welcome all of our audience to send in your questions and send in your comments. The point here is, "Elite listens to itself and not to people." I am not sure we can comment on that, but the sense I get from the book is that we do need to take sentiment from people on the ground.

You also recommend in the book to get hyper-local, not just to look at the United States but to break up the United States into regions and into states because there is a huge difference by state, which I thought was interesting. What are some of your state-by-state comparisons for our audience?

JON CLIFTON: If we treat countries like a monolith, I think one of the challenges is that it masks over massive differences that are taking place at the regional level. For example, if you were to break out every U.S. state and rank it by how people rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, how the United States would rank globally changes a lot, to the point where Utah would come out around 7th and West Virginia would end up somewhere around 60th. It is because the realities of what is happening in Utah compared to West Virginia show massive differences.

The same is true not only in U.S. states but they are also true within provinces, regions, states, and cantons if we are going to Switzerland, but if we could break out places like Uttar Pradesh, imagine what we could learn in India, looking at every single region with the frequency that we look at things like employment or GDP rates.

You brought up China and the protests that so many of us are aware of right now, but the question is: What takes place before people go to the streets? I think it is interesting. Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus talks about how the human mind is like an algorithm, but what is put into that algorithm where the output is the anger and frustration that causes us to actually go to the streets?

I mention anger and frustration. How do we capture those things, and can you through survey research? Right now we believe that we can and that we are collecting meaningful information because right now in terms of face validation, if you will, we can see that the trends are meaningful. Do they fully explain everything that is happening in the world? Definitely not, but are they potentially explaining some things? A few academics believe so. George Ward, for example, used Gallup's data and also sentiment from Twitter and other social media platforms to see if he could actually predict either the outcome of elections or if he could predict the rise in populist sentiment or the rise in populist parties, and he believes that he can.

Again, depending on who you determine is populist—sometimes people believe that there are populists on both sides of the aisle—you could see in places like in Brazil and Mexico a steady rise in negative emotions over the past decade. Did that contribute to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro? Did it contribute to the rise of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico? We cannot say definitively that it did, but you can see this underlying frustration that was taking place in many of these countries. I don't think it is too far of a stretch to draw a parallel to how people feel and what they do, not just in the streets but also in the ballot box.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Listening to that and as this conversation is continuing I am struck by the points that you are raising in comparison with a text I had to read as a student in a history class, which was a book called They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. It was based on massive amounts of interviews that were done after the war in Germany, and it was trying to get at the rise of the Nazi movement but also popular reactions and acquiescence.

As you are going through all of these things, these themes in the interviews of people saying, "I didn't think I had a future, there was no work, jobs weren't going to be available, I was lonely, I joined and supported the Nazi movement because it gave me community, it broke down class barriers, it opened up opportunities, I felt valued"—obviously some people in Germany were not valued by the movement. That was also part of that negative community building. It took the anger and frustration and focused it on specific targets.

It does seem that everything that you are laying out here, this kind of thing, "Well, democracy will solve all of this"—the president has laid this out in the National Security Strategy—but as you are saying here we can also look at this and say, "Maybe this charts the rise of political movements that may not be democratically inclined," and if we see enough of these factors in play, does that then suggest these types of more authoritarian, whether left or right, populist movements gaining traction precisely because they are going to promise the people community, jobs, a future, "We're going to give you hope again," versus if democracy doesn't seem to fulfill those things, then people will turn away from those democratic movements.

Tatiana, back to your students saying they are not happy and are concerned about the future, I would have to think that is directly linked to the polling data that says support and belief in the efficacy of democracy declines as you go younger, that younger generations in the United States are less inclined to say that the democratic system can meet these needs.

Again, just listening to this I am struck by hearing these parallels and some of these concerns about whether or not from our perspective in the United States. Maybe we are not out of the woods in terms of beating back a proto-authoritarian challenge to our system.

JON CLIFTON: I think another aspect of this is purpose. I think there are a number of scholars and thinkers who talk about the human mind having a need for purpose and following some kind of religion. I don't necessarily mean religion as a monotheism or polytheism but a religion in terms of whatever it is that they prescribe to, even if it is democracy, socialism, or communism.

I think one of the questions is that if you are struggling within your life and cannot find anything to attach yourself to, to ask, "What is it that I am going to be following and be passionate about?" this is one of the reasons that there are a number of individuals who are struggling in life and reflecting it. It is hard for us to capture that kind of information.

But to your point on why there are so many young people here in the United States emotionally detaching from concepts like democracy—which you can see very clearly in the data—that may have more negative consequences for society because what else are they attaching to, but also do they not have anything?

I think this is one of the challenges in organizations too. What is helpful is when we connect people to the mission of the organization. What is the organization trying to accomplish outside of making money? This is why I think so many young people are feeling pressures within companies to say: "We've got to stand for more than what Milton Friedman said a company stands for in 1970. Do we really only stand for making money?"

It is not to say that we are going to have a world of nonprofits because of course the owners of these companies—which are not just rich people; a lot of times they are pensions; they could be government-owned entities—are making investments in these places and they are saying, "Look, we need to increase the retirement fund for the people within this organization."

I think again this is why you see these pressures, now even from the investor side, things like environmental, social, and governance concerns, where they are saying, "Hey, can we look to more of a purpose and a mission behind this organization outside of just making money?" although that needs to be part of it too.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I have two questions that are totally unrelated, and I don't know which direction I want to go in. I will stick with the politics one because I thought this was interesting.

You asked your survey, one with the politics question in the front and one without, and you find that people answer differently when they don't see the politics question first. You write: "The toxic nature of partisan politics can actually make people feel worse about their lives.” Can we talk about that for a second?

JON CLIFTON: Again, you could call this a mistake and call it an error or you could call it an incredible discovery. I like to think of as that.

In 2008 Gallup was tracking the presidential election of Barack Obama and John McCain. We were asking: "Who are you going to vote for and what polling station do you typically go to?" We do that because we are trying to figure out if we can predict whether or not they are going to vote. Of course you know these likely voter models are key in order to predict the outcome of the election. So we had this very robust module of questions to ask them about their participation in voting, who they are going to vote for, et cetera.

At the very end we would say, "Rate your life on a scale of 0 to 10," and at the very end of the election we took the election questions off and went back to rate the life on a scale of 0 to 10. We noticed that people started to rate their lives better, and we couldn't figure it out.

Our chief workplace scientist Jim Harter and now-Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton were looking at the data, and they said: "You know what? I don't think this was a massive increase just because Obama won"—we have seen some increases because of that, and that is a separate thing I am happy to discuss—but what it was, was this sort of context effect, that if you prime someone to think about something it causes them to think differently about other things. It is a thing we have known about in psychology for a very long time, and now behavioral economists have talked about it at length.

But the priming we did was politics, and then we asked people about their lives, and what we found was that if you prime someone with politics, they feel worse. That shows us that there is a general toxicity of politics so that the very dialogue of it upsets us. It may not be true of everyone, but at least we could see it in a national survey with the United States. Before we say, "We should never deal with politics again," and, "Isn't this a point for authoritarian regimes who don't have to deal with politics," I think it requires further study, but it goes to show that not everyone is down to talk about politics on Thanksgiving, and the very mention of it might worsen people's moods, so be careful about when you talk about and with whom.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I thought that was interesting. I also thought—and I have to mention this—there was no gender difference in the life questions. That was in the back of my mind as I was reading, and then you did address it at the end.

Why do you think that men and women are responding the same to these questions? That was completely shocking to me.

JON CLIFTON: There was a conference we had a long time ago. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state she kindly came to Gallup, and we partnered with the World Bank to announce that the world needs more data on gender because a lot of times when you are doing household surveys you cannot do great gender disaggregation because you are asking the "head of the household" to speak on behalf of everyone, so the data aren't great. In Gallup surveys that is not the case. We do individual-level surveys.

Of course, the question we ask is: "Rate your life on a scale of 0 to 10.” Considering that we can see very clearly in our data that women do not have the same opportunities as men in the workplace and that women do not have the same physical security that men do—in fact one of the largest gender gaps that we see in our entire database is about whether or not they feel safe in their communities—one would reasonably conclude that women would rate their lives worse, especially considering that those two things are among the biggest drivers.

So it is very surprising to us that we find that not only do women rate their lives exactly the same as men in every single country in the world, if anything they rate their lives slightly higher. This pattern is true globally, regionally, and in every individual country for every single year of our tracking. The reason I put it in the section on "We still cannot speak to this definitively" is because that's true. We do not have an answer or can explain this.

I interviewed who I believe are the best experts on women's well-being globally, for example, Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders, who was America's ambassador to Nigeria and the Congo. She has also written a book on the Uli women. She had a very unique perspective, which was, "Women don't compare their lives to men, so this is not even an appropriate analysis," which I thought was absolutely brilliant.

Carol Graham, who originally wrote a white paper on this, said: "I had no idea that this publication would be the most read publication in my career, but it is," and she titled it, "Are women happier than men? Do gender rights make a difference?"

She said the reason for this is because women expect that they should have equal rights to men in many cases, and when they are given to women you do not necessarily see a massive increase in how they see their lives because they had already expected those things. In fact in some cases you can see it almost drop because they feel like they are still behind in some aspects of society when those rights can be given.

That is why I think it is interesting from the perspective of these experts as to why this is happening, but since the publication of this book—this goes to show you how fast this research is moving—there is a researcher who put forward a paper, and she said the reason this is happening is because women's expectations are different, and she can see it by using this sort of technique that we call "vignettes." We ask respondents: "If there is a man who is 50, he is rich, he lives in Denmark, what do you think he should rate his life?" She says that women are rating that lower because their expectations are different. Thus, if you adjust for it, you do actually see that women rate their lives lower than men globally.

This is very fascinating from a behavioral and a psychology perspective, and if we can continue to get more brilliant minds like hers to help us advance this information I think it will put us in a place where we can truly perfect these indicators for the world.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What is next? What do we need to do today to make changes?

JON CLIFTON: If we were in a perfect world and I guess money were no issue, we would be able to have indicators on anger, stress, sadness, pain, and worry just like we have for GDP. The way that we report this, on at least a quarterly basis, for almost every single country in the world, what if we did that for how people felt? If we did that, I think we would honest to God change the world because I think leaders would obsess about it just like they do on economic conditions.

The other thing is that we would have it at every locale for the world. We call these Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS), NUTS 1 and NUTS 2, those sort of territorial representations, things like states or locales, where we could compare Uttar Pradesh to California and get better understandings of where we are making impressive gains on reducing stress and sadness in one particular area so the rest of the world can address it. I think that is what would be ideal.

One of the things that I wanted to stress is, is it the government's responsibility to make people happy? I don't know that we are there to necessarily answer that question because I think a lot of times there is an onus on the individual in order to address some of the issues in their own lives. The government doesn't necessarily exist to make us all have perfect lives.

One of the things we are most inspired by is what Daniel Kahneman said, which is, to reduce global misery. These indicators on anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry I think best capture the misery that exists in the world, and it is heading in the wrong direction, so what would be great is if leaders joined hands on this and said, "Let's curb the global rise of unhappiness," not unlike they at least attempted to curb the global rise of COVID-19.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to just ask, is the United Nations an effective body still? You mention a couple of times in the book in terms of indicators. Who is going to organize these global leaders? I think that is the question that we struggle with here at The Doorstep: How can we get the globe into local, because that is the connect we are trying to make?

JON CLIFTON: I don't know that I am the right person to answer whether or not the United Nations is still an effective body. Obviously at Gallup we are apolitical, we do not want to take any kind of positions, but I do think that what the United Nations did positively was to align the world on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I think as we are thinking toward the future that rather than relegate the voice of the people to a secondary contribution to the SDGs is to elevate the voice of the people and ultimately either add an indicator or add some kind of variable that says, "Let's monitor whether or not people have a lot of anger or stress," and make that an official goal or indicator within the future goals. If we do, I think world leaders everywhere will pay far more attention to it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Are you doing your 2022 survey now?

JON CLIFTON: That's right. When we conduct a survey we effectively work with 5,000 to 6,000 interviewers who are walking the planet in order to help us capture this data, and then of course we are conducting phone calls into 40 of the other countries. We are trying to wrap it up now. There are some places where it is more difficult for us to collect information. Places like Ukraine have been difficult. We pivoted our methodology, so we have done phone calls, and we just released and came out of the field with what we have learned in Ukraine, and we hope that lifting the voice of Ukrainians is something that leaders everywhere would want to pay attention to. We are also hoping that we can get surveys completed in Russia because giving Russians a voice is critical right now, to understand what Russians are thinking and feeling at this particular moment.

The same is true everywhere. Of course we continue to try to get information in Myanmar. We have not stopped collecting information in Myanmar, and we are trying to do that successfully now. The same is true in Ethiopia. It may be a bit difficult for us to get into the Tigray region, but we are going to do whatever we can.

As I mentioned, historically when we have seen challenges, like when the Ebola virus broke out in Liberia in 2014, we pivoted our methodology. In fact because Liberia's national language is English, we were able to successfully call from Gallup's call centers here in the United States. So we are always looking for ways, even if it is not the most ideal methodology, to make sure that people are being heard all over the planet.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love this so much as a journalist. It is my supreme joy in life to hear from people and share their stories.

The book is Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It. Put it in your holiday stocking. Give it as a birthday present. This book needs to be read far and wide.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Jon. I appreciate it.

JON CLIFTON: Tatiana and Nick, thank you for having me, and thank you for reading the book. It means a lot to me.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

You may also like

NOV 9, 2022 Podcast

What's Next Post-Midterms for the Biden/Harris Administration? with Rational Security

In a crossover collaboration with the national security and foreign policy podcast "Rational Security," co-hosts Scott R. Anderson and Alan Z. Rozenshtein, both "Lawfare" senior ...

OCT 19, 2021 Podcast

Negotiating the New START Treaty, with Rose Gottemoeller

As the U.S. chief negotiator of the New START treaty, Rose Gottemoeller's new book is an invaluable insider's account of the negotiations between the ...

SEP 25, 2020 Podcast

The Doorstep: Financial Scandals, Trump vs. Biden, & What To Do About China

Hosted by award-winning professor of journalism Tatiana Serafin, with international relations scholar and Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev, The Doorstep is an innovative international ...