Measuring the Mental State of the World?

What is the state of the world’s mental health? And how could anyone possibly work that out?

That’s the goal of the Global Mind Project, an initiative of a group calling itself the Sapiens Institute. The institute sends out surveys via the internet that take around 15 minutes to complete.

It sounds simple, but they do it on a titanic scale. Last year, the survey compiled results from 518,000 people worldwide across 71 countries. It brought in speakers of 13 different languages, including Arabic, Swahili, Hindi and European languages. (It included survey respondents speaking Chinese in south-east Asia, but did not have access to residents in China itself). 

What did they find? Respondents’ answers are used to calculate a score called the Mental Health Quotient. It has been shown to correlate with productivity, for example the number of days per year a person is not able to work. It also maps onto the most common psychiatric disorders according to the DSM.

On the Sapiens Mental Health Quotient, 38% of the world feels it is succeeding and thriving. At the other end of the spectrum, around 27% of people feel they are struggling.

The world’s happiest countries, on this measure, are the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Tanzania, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. And where are the highest number of people struggling? The lowest ranking countries are the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Ireland and, yes, Australia.

It’s a tremendous example of how “global metrics” don’t count the people outside the global information sphere.

Nigerians, or at least the ones doing internet surveys, are some of the happiest people in the world.

Sapiens then attempts to draw correlations that account for the divergence between countries. Reading their results, the differences are attributable to survey responses about “prevalence of processed food” or “age of first smartphone use”.

All of this probably says more about the hubris of trying to reduce the happiness of all the world’s people to a comparable metric. Standardised questions about one’s own sense of self-worth, connectedness, creativity, or adaptability are hardly going to mean the same thing to survey respondents in one corner of the world compared to another.

As questionable as this sort of self-report study may be, the Sapiens Institute is based on one powerful founding insight: that urbanites with access to modern technology have different day-to-day brain functioning – as measured in EEG readings – than off-the-grid people. Trying to flesh out that contrast via internet surveys may be counter-productive, but we’ll be avidly following the institute’s work to see where they take these ideas.

Thumbnail image courtesy of @beazy and article image courtesy of @magbe, both via Unsplash.

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