Global benevolence has increased, Finland is the happiest country in the world (and Afghanistan the least happy), while sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are among the saddest places on the planet. This year’s World Happiness Report shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had varying effects on countries around the world. Nine of the 10 regions have seen less laughter during both of the COVID-19 years, with Eastern Europe providing the sole exception.
And interestingly, countries where people trusted their governments and each other experienced lower COVID-19 death tolls and set the stage for maintaining or rebuilding a sense of common purpose to deliver happier, healthier and more sustainable lives.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the World Happiness Report, which looks both back and forward while maintaining its reporting of current well-being and broadening the authors’ analysis of the far-ranging effects of COVID-19.
The reports includes the ranking and modelling of national happiness based on data covering 2019 through 2021, and also looks back at the evolution of life evaluations, and various emotions since the Gallup World Poll data first became available in 2005-2006. Using a wider range of the emotional and other supports for life evaluations enables us to distinguish a greater variety of global and regional trends. It uses individual-level data from 2017 through 2021 to examine how life under COVID-19 has changed for people in different circumstances.
The authors have updated their analysis of how different features of national demographic, social, and political structures have combined with the consequences of policy strategies and disease exposure to help explain international differences in 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 death rates. A central finding continues to be the extent to which the quality of the social context, especially the extent to which people trust their governments and have trust in the benevolence of others, supports their happiness before, during, and likely after the pandemic.
Countries where people trusted their governments and each other experienced lower COVID-19 death tolls and set the stage for maintaining or rebuilding a sense of common purpose to deliver happier, healthier and more sustainable lives. This forward-looking part permits an optimistic tinge based on the remarkable growth in prosocial activities during 2021.
In summary, overall levels of life evaluations have been fairly stable during two years of COVID-19, matched by modest changes in the global rankings. Finland remains in the top position for the fifth year running, followed by Denmark in 2nd and all five Nordic countries among the top eight countries, joined by Switzerland, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. France reached its highest ranking to date, at 20th, while Canada slipped to its lowest ranking ever, at 15th, just behind Germany at 14th and followed closely by the United States and the United Kingdom at 16th and 17th.
South Africa was ranked 91st out of 146 countries, lower than Ivory Coast (placed 88th), Ecuador (76) and Mexico (46). The last three on the list were Zimbabwe, then Lebanon, and at the very bottom, Afghanistan.
Trends over the past 15 years show slight growth in life evaluations for the typical country until 2011 and reductions since. The largest trend increases were in Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Consistent with trend convergence in happiness between Eastern and Western Europe, the three countries with the greatest growth in average life evaluations over the past 10 years were Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, with gains averaging 1.4 points on the 0 to 10 scale, or more than 20% of their levels in the 2008-2012 period.
Among the six variables used to explain these levels, there has been general growth in real GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, generally declining perceptions of corruption and freedom, declining generosity (until 2020), and fairly constant overall levels of social support.
Well-being inequality has generally grown since 2011, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia.
Positive emotions have generally been twice as prevalent as negative ones. That gap has been narrowing over the past 10 years, with enjoyment and laughter on a negative trend in most regions and worry and sadness on rising trends (with the general exception of Central and Eastern Europe). Over the past decade, the trend growth in worry and sadness has been greatest in South Asia, Latin America, MENA, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Anger has remained low and stable in the global average, with large increases in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa offset by trend declines elsewhere.
There have been trend increases in national-average stress levels in all 10 global regions. Individual-level data for emotions and life evaluations reveal that COVID-19 has worsened the well-being costs of unemployment and ill health. The pandemic has also exposed, but not increased, pre-existing differences between males and females and between those with low and high incomes.
Fuelled by worry and sadness, but not by anger, negative affect as a whole was about 8% above its pre-pandemic value in 2020, falling to 3% above baseline in 2021.
Over the five most recent years, positive emotions as a whole remained more than twice as frequent as negative ones and greater for the young than the old. Their average frequency did not change during 2020 and 2021, with losses among the young offset by increases for the old, partially closing the initial gap favouring the young age group.
Trust and benevolence have, if anything, become more important. Higher institutional trust continues to be linked to lower death rates from COVID-19 to a greater extent in 2021 than in 2020.
Although the three measures of prosocial behaviour – donations, volunteering and helping strangers – had differing levels and trends, all showed increases in 2021 in every global region, often at remarkable rates not seen for any of the variables tracked before and during the pandemic.
Sadness in East Asia has throughout the period has been less than in any other region, declining until 2010 and rising thereafter, still less than half as prevalent as elsewhere in the world. The fastest increases in sadness and the highest eventual levels were in South Asia, MENA, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa.
There were mid-range levels and no clear trends in the other regions. There was increased sadness in 2020 in every region except South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, followed in 2021 by reductions in sadness in every region except South Asia, which has also seen by far the largest increases in worry over the past 10 years. The patterns for worry and sadness thus share many similarities.
Worry 10 years ago was lowest in East Asia and the CIS and since has risen less fast there than elsewhere. Worry was much more frequent in Eastern than Western Europe in 2010, growing in the west and declining in the east to converge in 2019 before both rose in 2020 and fell in 2021. The 2021 decline in worry was shared by all other regions but South Asia, with the largest increases over the past 10 years.
Smiling and laughing started high and have since risen further in Southeast Asia while starting low and falling since in South Asia. By 2020 and 2021, these two parts of Asia were the world’s top and bottom regions, respectively. Smiling and laughing were least frequent, and equally so, in Eastern Europe and the CIS at the beginning of the Gallup World Poll in 2005-2006.
They have since been rising in lockstep to exceed those in South Asia and MENA. Laughing and smiling were initially most frequent in Latin America and the NA+ANZ group and have been fairly constant there since then. Nine of the 10 regions have seen less laughter during both of the COVID-19 years, with Eastern Europe providing the sole exception.
Global benevolence, as measured by the average of the three measures of prosocial behaviour, has increased remarkably in 2021, up by almost 25% of its pre-pandemic level, led by the helping of strangers, but with strong growth also in donations and volunteering.
The COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020 has led to a 2021 pandemic of benevolence with equally global spread. All must hope that the pandemic of benevolence will live far beyond COVID-19. If sustainable, this outpouring of kindness provides grounds for hope and optimism in a world needing more of both.
COVID’s effect: Resilience despite lives torn asunder
Subjective well-being continues to be strikingly resilient in the face of COVID-19. As shown by the very small estimated coefficients on both Covid1 and Covid2, there have been no significant changes in average life evaluations in either of the two COVID-19 years compared to the 2017-2019 baseline.
How do we square this substantial resiliency at the population level with evidence everywhere of lives and livelihoods torn asunder? First, it is important to note that some population subgroups hardest hit by the pandemic are not included in most surveys. For example, surveys usually exclude those living in elder care, hospitals, prisons, and most living on the streets and in refugee camps. These populations were already worse off and have been most affected by COVID-19.
Second, the shift from face-to-face interviews to cell phone surveys for many countries in 2020 may have altered the characteristics of the surveyed population in ways that are hard to adjust for by usual weighting methods. For example, the average incomes of 2020 respondents in China were much larger than those of 2019 respondents, explicable in part because cell-phone sampling procedures would cover people living inside high income gated communities otherwise inaccessible by face-to-face methods. In 2021, face-to-face interviews were restored in many countries, suggesting that the resilience shown in both years is not due to changes in survey methods.
Third, is it possible that the relative stability of subjective well-being in the face of the pandemic does not reflect resilience in the face of hardships but instead suggests that life evaluations are inadequate measures of well-being? If the chosen measures do not move a lot under COVID-19, perhaps they will not change whatever happens.
In response to this quite natural scepticism, it is important to remind ourselves that subjective life evaluations do change, and by very large amounts, when many key life circumstances change. For example, unemployment, perceived discrimination, and several types of ill-health have large and sustained influences on measured life evaluations.
Perhaps even more convincing is evidence that the happiness of immigrants tends to move quickly towards the levels and distributions of life evaluations of those born in their new countries of residence and even those already living in the sub-national regions to which the migrants move.
Fourth, there is also the emerging evidence of increasing levels of prosocial activity during COVID-19, emerging initially in 2020 with increased help to strangers, but now including donations and volunteering, with large increases in all activities in 2021.
World Happiness Report
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