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Social Capital and Well-Being in Times of Crisis


This paper attempts to show how the quality of the social fabric of a community or nation affects its capacity to deal with crises and to develop human and natural resources in ways that maintain and sustainably improve subjective well-being. Three types of crisis will be used as examples. These include economic crises; transition and other institutional crises; and conflicts over sustainable resource use. The bulk of the new results in this paper relate to economic crises and institutional transitions, and shows that communities and nations with better social capital and trust respond to crises and transitions more happily and effectively.

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  1. The Current Population Survey (CPS) Supplemental Surveys are available from the NBER at

  2. The standard error is calculated using the following variance calculation: \(\text{var} \left( {\widehat{\alpha } + \widehat{\beta } \times Z} \right) = \text{var} \left( {\widehat{\alpha }} \right) + Z^{2} \times \text{var} \left( {\widehat{\beta }} \right) + 2 \times Z \times \text{cov} (\widehat{\alpha },\widehat{\beta })\) with Z = 1. In this formula, the \( \widehat{\alpha} \) is the estimated coefficient on ∆ Local unemp, measuring the impact of rising unemployment in a city with SC1 = 0, i.e., where the measure of broad engagement is at the national average. The \( \widehat{\beta} \) is the estimated coefficient on the interactive term between broad engagement and the unemployment variable. Z is the level of social capital where we evaluate the marginal effect of rising unemployment. In this particular case, we evaluate the marginal effect at SC1 = 1, i.e., where the measure of broad engagement is one standard deviation above the national average.

  3. There is, however, a significant drop in the Cantril ladder for Korea in 2012. Many other countries with data in 2012 also show drops, perhaps reflecting shared national and global concerns about economic and other conditions. The 2012 data will be analyzed further when data are available from the full round of 2012 GWP surveys.

  4. Transcription from the simultaneous translation of President Lee’s opening remarks to the OECD Forum. A longer version of the remarks may be found in Helliwell (2011b, p. 299).

  5. The transition countries in the ESS are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Ukraine. The ESS non-transition countries are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and United Kingdom.

  6. Social norms drive behaviour, and are themselves determined by acquired social identities (Akerlof and Kranton 2010). Haslam and Reicher (2011) and Reicher et al. (2012) have recently re-interpreted the earlier experimental evidence of Milgram (1974) and Zimbardo (2006) to argue convincingly that people are willing to follow advice or orders especially, and often only, where both the leader and the cause are seen as legitimate. This in turn is much more likely where people feel a sense of belonging to the group in question. Finally, happiness research shows that subjective well-being and trust are both supported by peoples’ sense of belonging to both narrow and broader groups (Helliwell and Wang 2011, Table 3). Evidence suggests that such gains in well-being are possible even in the prison environments used by Zimbardo. For examples, see Lovibond et al. (1979), Leong (2010), and Helliwell (2011a).


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This research is part of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Program in Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being. Wang is supported by the research fund offered by Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management for "Inequality and Subjective Well-Being" project. Authors are very grateful to the anonymous referees for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to John F. Helliwell.

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Helliwell, J.F., Huang, H. & Wang, S. Social Capital and Well-Being in Times of Crisis. J Happiness Stud 15, 145–162 (2014).

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  • Subjective well-being
  • Happiness
  • Social capital
  • Economic crises
  • Transition
  • Sustainable development
  • Social context