Despite the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in all areas of life, many of the highest-ranked countries in terms of overall happiness have remained at the top of the list, according to the 2021 World Happiness Report, released Friday, the day before the International Day of Happiness.
The report focuses primarily on the relationship between well-being and the pandemic, which made collecting responses from around the world particularly challenging. The editors note that on top of the pandemic’s terrible toll of 2.6 million deaths worldwide, people all over the world are also dealing with greater economic insecurity, anxiety, stress, challenges to mental and physical health and an overall disruption of every aspect of daily life.
“This year’s Happiness Report was faced with a unique challenge in trying to understand what effect the pandemic has had on subjective well-being and vice versa,” the organization behind the report said in a statement. “Of all the factors usually supporting happiness, the most important for explaining COVID-19 death rates were people’s trust in each other, and confidence in their governments.”
This trust, report editors say, is one of the main reasons that Finland remains No. 1.
“Surprisingly there was not, on average, a decline in well-being when measured by people’s own evaluation of their lives,” said editor John Helliwell. “One possible explanation is that people see COVID-19 as a common, outside threat affecting everybody and that this has generated a greater sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling.”
The U.S. ranked 14th on this year’s list.
The report looked to address one key question that separates the Americas and Europe from East Asia, Australia and Africa: “Why the different COVID-19 death rates across the world?”
Some of the factors that may help account for this variation include population age, whether the country is an island and proximity to other countries with high infection rates. Cultural differences also played a crucial role, including confidence in public institutions, historical knowledge of past epidemics, income inequality, whether the leader of the nation is a woman, and even whether lost wallets in the community were likely to be returned.
The report emphasized that pandemic policies can be equally effective when citizens are compliant, as tends to be the case in East Asia, or more freedom-oriented, as in Australia and New Zealand. The evidence showed that morale improves when governments act.
“The East Asian experience shows that stringent government policies not only control Covid-19 effectively, but also buffer the negative impact of daily infections on people’s happiness,” said editor Shun Wang.
As a major casualty of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, mental health was also a key factor. For example, researchers found that overall mental health problems were 47% higher in the U.K. in May 2020, a few months into the pandemic.
“The World Happiness Report 2021 reminds us that we must aim for wellbeing rather than mere wealth, which will be fleeting indeed if we don’t do a much better job of addressing the challenges of sustainable development,” said report co-editor Jeffrey Sachs.
As to be expected, the pandemic also majorly affected workplace well-being, another measure of overall happiness. Losing one’s job during the pandemic was associated with a 12% drop in life satisfaction, according to the report, which also predicts that the shift to remote work is likely to endure.
“Strikingly, we find that among people who stopped work due to furlough or redundancy, the impact on life satisfaction was 40% more severe for individuals that felt lonely to begin with,” said editor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve. “Our report also points towards a ‘hybrid’ future of work, that strikes a balance between office life and working from home to maintain social connections while ensuring flexibility for workers, both of which turn out to be key drivers of workplace well-being.”
World’s happiest countries 2021
- New Zealand
- United States
- Czech Republic
- United Kingdom