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How has COVID-19 affected world happiness?

CIFAR Fellows and Canada CIFAR AI Chairs investigate happiness using interdisciplinary methods 

It has been one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. COVID-19 has posed enormous challenges to world happiness through death and illness, but also through economic instability, uncertainty, and stress. However, evidence compiled by CIFAR researchers has revealed many silver linings in the pandemic. They found that, despite the circumstances, people all over the world have proved not only to be resilient in the face of challenging times, but to also have found ways to be happy. 

From global surveys of self-reported well-being, to using AI to understand the physical features that are characteristic of a lonely brain, to tracking trends in population-wide mental health by monitoring social media conversations, CIFAR researchers are using innovative methods to investigate diverse measurements of happiness at a global scale.


2021 World Happiness Report 

CIFAR Distinguished Fellow John Helliwell is one of the editors of the World Happiness Report, which this year ranks 149 countries by their happiness levels using data derived from the Gallup World Poll. The World Happiness Report 2021, published on the International Day of Happiness on March 20, indicates that COVID-19 has had unprecedented impacts on world emotions, and while countries around the world are seeing increases in negative emotions such as worry and sadness, and a rise in the frequency of stress, their evaluations of life as a whole has shown surprising resilience.

Despite the worrying trends, the findings are also surprisingly optimistic. People around the world reported that they still found a reason to laugh and smile on a daily basis. 

“People have not toured the world, but many rediscovered their neighbourhoods,” says John Helliwell.

In 2020, respondents over 60 years of age reported significantly fewer health problems than in previous years, despite being in an age group most at risk from COVID-19.

They were also the group showing a significant increase in having someone to count on in times of trouble, suggesting that, at least for them, neighbours and zoom calls were filling in for the face-to-face contacts being put on hold,” he says.

He also says that institutional trust was a key factor in happiness, and that it played a significant role in helping countries identify and implement strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

Countries such as China and New Zealand were deemed the most resilient in the fight against COVID-19 as a result of high social and institutional trust.

John Helliwell is the former co-director for the CIFAR Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being Program (2005-2017). The CIFAR program inspired a new way of measuring world happiness, and resulted in the publication of the first World Happiness Report in 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Read the 2021 World Happiness Report.


COVID-19 and the ‘Lonely Brain’

Why is it that some people in pandemic lockdown situations feel more lonely than others? The answer may lie in how our individual brains are structured, suggests research conducted by Canada CIFAR AI Chair Danilo Bzdok, who applies artificial intelligence to compare the brains of adults who report feeling lonely with their peers who do not. 

Using magnetic resonance imaging, genetic data, and psychological assessments collected from 40,000 participants in the U.K. Biobank, Bzdok’s research reveals that people prone to loneliness may have a “loneliness trait”, or a neural signature that becomes apparent in imaging and biomedical data. He interpreted this brain signature of the “lonely brain” may reflect compensation strategies for unmet needs of social interaction through mental imagery of recalled past, hypothetical or anticipated future social interaction.

“Even before the current public health crisis, feelings of social isolation have become pervasive in many parts of the world,” says Bzdok. “Now, our societies are undergoing probably the largest mass social isolation in recent history. Our population-level investigation showed that a consistent signature of perceived social isolation can be identified in brain structure and function. This insight is particularly important because social deprivation is closely related to the vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease and other major neurodegenerative disorders.”

The study, published in Nature Communications in December 2020, reveals a series of associations of how social interaction is linked to our happiness, well-being, and perhaps even survival. With 10-20% of the population self-identified as lonely, people with lonely brains are at greater risk of adverse health conditions such as morbidity, hypertension, impaired immune systems, increased risk of suicide, as well as mental health and cognitive disorders including dementia.

One silver lining is that interaction in the form of FaceTime and Zoom calls is effective in counteracting loneliness.

Danilo Bzdok is a Canada CIFAR AI Chair and associate faculty member at Mila, as well as Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at McGill University. Read the Nature Communications paper.


Tracking happiness via Twitter

Twitter reports #COVID19 was the most-used hashtag in 2020. Social media users everywhere have been coping with the pandemic by sharing their emotional status online, from worries about homeschooling and unemployment, to loneliness and frustration in accessing services. However, there have been many positive feelings associated with the effects of the pandemic, such as being able to spend more time with family, getting outdoors, and enjoying hobbies. 

With the support from a CIFAR AI & COVID-19 Catalyst Grant, a team led by Alona Fyshe, a Canada CIFAR AI Chair and Fellow in the Learning in Machines & Brains program, is using natural language processing to investigate this rich source of self-reported well-being data during the pandemic. They hope to help mental health researchers better understand the emerging mental health challenges that affect people during a population-wide crisis like COVID-19. 

Fyshe and her collaborators, Dan Lizotte (Western University) and Rumi Chunara (New York University) are partnering with organizations including local public health units and the Canadian Mental Health Association throughout the project to ensure that the findings have maximum impact.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted our mental health, people are adapting and finding ways to be happy.

“People are still socializing, forming communities, and the huge bulk of topics coming out of our models have to do with people going about their everyday lives,” explains Brent Davis, a PhD student from Western who is working on the project.

Alona Fyshe is a Canada CIFAR AI Chair at Amii and assistant professor jointly in the departments of Computing Science and Psychology at the University of Alberta. She is a Fellow in our Learning in Machines & Brains program. Read more about her work at Amii

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