Our panelists’ responses to the two questions revealed a dichotomy between their views on developments in short-term wellbeing versus long-term wellbeing. A majority indicated that wellbeing has declined as a result of the Ukraine/Russia conflict but a majority did not expect the current deterioration in wellbeing to extend across a 20 year period. While the sub-samples are small, responses to the second question indicated a potential divide between those within and outside Europe; those within Europe tend to show more pessimism about long-term wellbeing than those outside.
For the first statement, 12 of our 16 respondents completely agreed (6) or agreed (6) with the statement, 3 were neutral and only one disagreed (no-one completely disagreed). The strongest arguments for agreement included:
- There has been an erosion in the world order with fundamental threats to trust in others and there are risks of further escalation in the conflict (Chris Barrington-Leigh, Arie Kapteyn, Paul Frijters; Gigi Foster). Arthur Grimes, who shared these views, noted that current threats to enlightenment values negatively impact on many people’s wellbeing; however, those who do not share in the values of the enlightenment may react positively to the thought that a nation is acting to assert its power. Mariano Rojas and Tony Beatton also noted that wellbeing of people in different circumstances and in different locations may respond quite differently; hence it is difficult to generalise about the effects.
- Stefano Bartolini considered that wars are a major source of insecurity, and wellbeing studies point to a substantial negative impact of insecurity on wellbeing. Sources of personal insecurity and instability in people’s lives, such as job loss and precariousness or divorce, hamper their wellbeing. Collective insecurity has a similar effect, as suggested by medical studies showing that individuals with hypertension show a significant increase in blood pressure and viscosity lasting 4-6 months, after experiencing an earthquake. The Covid experience, with its enormous burden of uncertainty and its huge destructive effect on the mental health of large portions of the population is evidence of the negative impact of collective insecurity on wellbeing.
- The conflict has caused reductions in material wellbeing, in part through price increases, especially in fuel prices, so reducing overall wellbeing (Arie Kapteyn; Chris Barrington-Leigh, Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster). Conal Smith elaborated on this point noting that reductions in real incomes have a disproportionately negative impact on wellbeing compared to simply living at a particular level of income (e.g. de Neve et al, 2018).
- Some countries are witnessing a large influx of refugees as a result of the conflict, placing pressure on local resources and creating additional hardship and resentment (Paul Frijters).
- Maurizio Pugno argued for a potential side effect of a protracted war which “can cause, in populations not directly involved, a desensitization to violence, which, through social interaction, leads to malaise".
- Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell discussed another type of protracted effect: The war in Ukraine follows a series of social, economic, and cultural tensions, including the Covid pandemic, and these cumulative effects have resulted in a steady deterioration of wellbeing.
- Wenceslao Unanue argued that the war is having negative impacts on the environment, the economy, individual well-being (including life insecurity, mental health problems, fear of death) and society as a whole. Moreover, the conflict is imposing severe threats to achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (Pereira et al., 2022).
- Heinz Welsch cited the research of Kimball et al. (2006) who found that after Hurricane Katrina, wellbeing fell in US regions that were not directly affected. On the other hand, Coupe and Obrizan (2016) found little effect on the wellbeing of Ukrainians living in regions not directly affected by the (initial) war in the east of Ukraine. He considered, however, that the much larger scale of the present war and the threat it poses to peace in Europe (plus the economic consequences) is resulting in considerable deterioration in the wellbeing of European citizens.
The only person to disagree with the statement, Ruut Veenhoven, referred to a different historical example. Consistent with the Coupe and Obrizan results, he noted that research after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 did not show an effect on the happiness of Americans, even for those who were aware of the danger of an atomic war.
For the second statement, 8 panelists either completely disagreed (4) or disagreed (4), while 4 agreed (3) or completely agreed (1); the remaining 4 were neutral.
Those in the majority (i.e. those who disagreed with the statement that wellbeing would not return to 2019 levels within the next 20 years) made a number of supporting observations:
- Tony Beatton argued that the proposition depended on which country was being considered. He reported that subjective wellbeing in Australia was higher in 2020 than in 2017, while in other countries (e.g. China with its zero-Covid policy) experiences may be quite different.
- Similarly, in New Zealand, Conal Smith produced data showing both that official measures and Gallup World Poll measures of life satisfaction indicate a consistent picture of the Covid pandemic inducing a positive wellbeing blip followed by a return to long term trends afterwards (for further evidence, see Grimes, 2022).
- In Chile, Wenceslao Unanue considered that moves towards greater social rights (e.g. health, education, pensions), environmental protection, and more autonomy and less inequality for women, will lead to improved wellbeing relative to the situation in 2019 – a year which saw massive civil unrest.
- Heinz Welsch (referring to research reported in Welsch, 2008) considered that the war in Ukraine will not continue at the present scale for several years, but if it does continue, happiness adaptation is likely to occur both in countries directly affected and in other countries. Arie Kapteyn similarly considered adaptation to be likely.
- Pointing to long term trends, Ruut Veenhoven noted that average happiness has risen in Western nations over the past 50 years in spite of economic recessions and other challenges: “The human species did not evolve in Paradise”!
- Other panelists (Richard Easterlin, Arthur Grimes, Stefano Bartolini, Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell, Martin Binder, Chris Barrington-Leigh) noted that much can happen to influence wellbeing over a long period such as 20 years. Like Ruut Veenhoven and Wenceslao Unanue, Chris Barrington-Leigh pointed to potential positive influences on wellbeing in future: “It's also important to realize how many things can be expected to be vastly better, if we look more than a few decades ahead. Transcending the energy transition to clean distributed power, and transcending the population peak, mean that a beautiful, clean, prosperous world await -- albeit with a few fewer species.” Mariano Rojas pointed to similar challenging issues, but considered their presence could lead to either pessimism or optimism depending on our awareness of the challenges and how they are tackled.
Two of those who agreed with the statement pointed to the after-effects of Covid (and the policy reactions to Covid) as having long-term consequences. With reference to Australia, Gigi Foster considered that “the children who suffered through the Covid era will still be around in 20 years, enjoying worse outcomes because of all the debt we accumulated and all the services we deprived them of during Covid - so their wellbeing levels will likely not fully recover.” For the Netherlands, Paul Frijters argued that the country “has a locked-in generation of children with reduced schooling and emotional intelligence due to the forced school closures of the last 30 months, which will reduce wellbeing for a generation. Also, the impoverishment and social strife that has come with the lockdowns (vaccine apartheid, business closures, increased autocracy, reduced voice of citizens) is leading to a long-run increase in poverty and reduced quality of social relations.”
Meanwhile, Maurizio Pugno and Paul Frijters each pointed to longer term trends to argue that wellbeing is on a declining path. Paul Fijters expected “the simmering conflict between globalism and nationalism” to worsen over coming years while the negative effects of social media would continue to contribute to loss of critical skills and ability to focus. Reflecting his recent book (Pugno, 2022), Maurizio Pugno argued that wellbeing has been declining in both Italy and the United States for structural reasons that arise from priority given to markets and large companies to solve (unsuccessfully) the problem of slowing economic growth. He argues “the result is that recessions, inequalities, environmental deterioration, and then pandemics have caused social divides, weak governments, and people unable to build their own future.”
As noted at the outset, the responses from outside of Europe to the second statement were, on balance, more optimistic about long-term trends than those from within Europe. This raises an interesting question – that we cannot answer here – of whether Europe faces special long-term challenges to wellbeing.
- Coupe T, Obrizan M. 2016. The Impact of War on Happiness: The Case of Ukraine, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 132, 228-242.
- De Neve J-E, Ward G, De Keulenaer F, Van Landeghem B, Kavetsos G, Norton M. 2018. The asymmetric experience of positive and negative economic growth: global evidence using subjective wellbeing data. Review of Economics and Statistics 100, 362-375.
- Grimes A. 2022. Measuring pandemic and lockdown impacts on wellbeing. Review of Income and Wealth, 68, 409-427.
- Kimball M, Levy H, Ohtake F, Tsutsui Y. 2006. Unhappiness after Hurricane Katrina. NBER Working Paper No. w12062.
- Pereira P, Zhao W, Symochko L, Inacio M, Bogunovic I, Barcelo D. 2022. The Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict impact will push back the sustainable development goals. Geography and Sustainability.
- Pugno M. 2022. Well-being and Growth in Advanced Economies: The Need to Prioritise Human Development. Routledge.
- Welsch H. 2008. The social costs of civil conflict: evidence from surveys of happiness. Kyklos, 61, 320-340.