Survey: 4 in 10 people are still unhappy two years into COVID pandemic

Nearly half of people worldwide are still unhappy more than two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new survey says.

According to the Oracle Happiness Report released earlier this month, about 45% of people have not felt true happiness since early 2020.

The software company surveyed more than 12,000 consumers and business leaders from 14 countries for its report, which also found about 25% of people don’t know or have forgotten what it means to feel truly happy.

Meanwhile, 88% of those polled are looking for new adventures to make them smile and laugh, with 80% prioritizing health, 79% seeking personal connections and 53% looking for adventures to gain happiness. Additionally, many are turning to brands, companies and online shopping for comfort.

"We're falling short on happiness. We took a big hit around the world," Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author of The Happiness Project and co-author of the report, told USA TODAY. "We're starving for new experiences to help make us feel better."

Many people worldwide are trying to find what Rubin calls the "next normal," seeking how to move forward while still amid a global pandemic.

The pandemic was "a once-in-a-lifetime event we were simply not prepared for," Rubin says. She said that despite the vaccines, boosters and some immunity from prior infections, most people still aren't feeling happier because the crisis isn't over.

"I don't know about you, but I've heard so many people say, 'Give me a date where I can pace myself and I can get to the finish line,'" Rubin said. "But when we have this constant feeling that we don’t know, that sense of uncertainty increases."

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And even though we may be venturing out more socially and more big events are taking place, Rubin says, "there's still not just this big huge sigh of relief. It's still a lot we're dealing with."

Global happiness

Measuring the happiness of others is nothing new. The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes a World Happiness Report every year based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

Christopher Barrington-Leigh, a professor at McGill University in Quebec and a researcher involved in the U.N. report, said the findings provide "important snapshots of how people around the world feel about the overall quality of their lives."

The data examines how citizens' trust in government and large institutions plays a major role in a country's level of happiness. For example, Finland was voted the world's happiest country for a fifth straight year. The U.S. ranked 16th.

The U.N. said the level of happiness noted in future reports will be influenced by the state of the pandemic globally, as well as the magnitude of Russia's war in Ukraine. Global economies were already struggling because of the pandemic, and the war has spiked inflation across the U.S. and the world, including eye-popping increases for basics like gas, oil and food.

"The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence," the report said. "As we battle the ills of disease and war, it is essential to remember the universal desire for happiness and the capacity of individuals to rally to each other’s support in times of great need."

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Besides measuring overall happiness, Oracle's report revealed that people are seeking smiles and laughs through brands, advertising and consumerism arguably more than ever before. That's a result of the social isolation and loneliness brought on by the pandemic and uncertain times, the report says.

Of those surveyed, 53% wish money could buy happiness, and 78% of them were willing to pay a premium for true joy.

During the pandemic, 89% tried to find happiness in online shopping and 47% said receiving packages made them happy. But 12% of those surveyed said they struggled to remember the purchases they had made online.

Those findings surprised Rob Tarkoff, Oracle's executive vice president for advertising and customer experience, told USA TODAY.

"I found it interesting that as many people admitted their dopamine levels went up when a package arrived at home, I experienced that too," Tarkoff said to USA TODAY, adding that he got to know more about his UPS delivery guy as well. "People wanted to seek connections and online shopping provided a lifeline."

A decade ago Adam Galinsky, a professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, who has no ties to the Oracle study, co-created the scientific term "enclothed cognition" to describe how clothes systematically influence wearers' psychological well-being.

People's relationship with brands is "long complicated," he says, warning that seeking happiness through purchases or the "consumer treadmill" can also create debt.

Can brands bring happiness in a pandemic?

Still, 78% of people surveyed in the Oracle report think brands can do more to deliver happiness to customers. And, 91% of them say they prefer brands to be funny. That number spikes among Gen Z (94%) and millennials (94%).

That coincides with 89% of business leaders who said they see opportunities to infuse humor into the customer experience.

But 95% of business leaders in the survey fear using humor in customer interactions, and 85% of those leaders think that they don't have enough data insights or tools to be humorous.

Additionally, about 55% of those leaders would be more confident using humor if they had better visibility with their customers, and 32% say they'd feel better if they had more access to technologies like artificial intelligence to gauge customer interest.

Also, 75% of those surveyed say they would follow a brand on social media if it was funny (like Wendy's Twitter account occasionally), despite only 15% of business leaders saying they would have their brand use humor on social media.

Oracle's Tarkoff said it could be a risky bet for some brands to inject humor into their customer interactions, but it could pay off. "For a brand, it takes courage for sure and it could be beneficial and competitively different," he said.

Rubin said the study ultimately shows it could take some people years to rediscover their sense of happiness.

"I think only time will tell," Rubin said. "Many people are struggling with what's going on, and if you come across something that brings a smile, a laugh to you, it's both a bit rare and refreshing."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID pandemic leaves 4 in 10 people unhappy: Oracle Happiness Report