With all the challenges of the last year, the mindset of the economic profession has shifted, with a flurry of research papers pointing to the vital importance of social capital. Notions like trust, state capacity, community-building, social cohesion, and social values like empathy and altruism are now seen as a prerequisite for prosperity and welfare.

All these social values and other notions pertaining to social capital are highly correlated not only with collective or societal wellbeing but also individual wellbeing (“subjective wellbeing” in the jargon). Indeed, study after study shows that positive linkages exist among social capital and wellbeing. Whether this takes place in the workplace, in the community, or at the level of a nation, stronger social capital (particularly higher levels of trust) is correlated with higher collective and subjective wellbeing.

In addition, research suggests that in times of crisis, higher levels of social capital enhance the capability of individuals and communities alike to (1) prepare for, (2) respond to, and (3) recover from major crises. As illustrated by the many different national responses to the pandemic, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: The positive correlation between social capital and wellbeing has an evolutionary benefit insofar that it delivers cooperative responses in times of crisis.

But what happens with these positive correlations when the social contract that binds us together is being undermined by polarization, tribalism and a general sentiment of mistrust? Put differently: How can we experience subjective wellbeing without being well together? We suspect that this question will soon become the crux of the issue for policymakers and business and community leaders. More and more, all those with an interest in wellness will ponder whether subjective wellbeing doesn’t depend first and foremost on our ability to live harmoniously together.

The situation in the US is the one that crystallizes this issue the most. The public developments that took place during and after the election illustrate the stunning dichotomy that exists between subjective (i.e., personal) wellbeing (where the US ranks fairly high in the World Happiness Report: 18th out of 156 nations in 2017-2019) and collective wellbeing (left wanting). President Biden summed it up when he said: “Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now.” On the subject of elections: A new research paper (“Changes in Wellbeing Around Elections” by Nicolas Schreiner) suggests that elections are (temporarily) detrimental to our subjective wellbeing. Partisan conflict and social pressures that pervade democratic societies at a time of elections cause this phenomenon.

There is a solution, though! In the same way that empathy and compassion can be taught (as in Finnish kindergartens), being kind to others and making things better in the most difficult social context can also be “engineered.” The recent results of a randomized controlled trial (RCT: the gold standard of evaluation) measuring the impact of PeacePlayers International (an association that uses basketball to unite, educate and inspire) in some of the world’s most divided communities (in the Middle East) show that 95% of Arab and Jewish youth formed cross-community friendships and learned to live with each other.

This is a remarkable achievement in terms of collective wellbeing and proof that polarization and community unhappiness are not a fatality. Collective wellbeing can be engineered! And most likely subjective wellbeing will follow.


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