What does being a happy country mean during a pandemic? Trust in your neighbors and your institutions makes all the difference.

Author: Luca Ventura
Project Coordinator: Binh P

INTRODUCTION

Frigid temperatures, dark winter days, a breathtakingly high cost of living: who would ever want to live in a place like that? As it turns out, that is precisely where one can find the happiest people on planet Earth. Finland conquered the United Nation's World Happiness Report's top spot for the fourth year in a row, and not because there is something in the icy waters of this nation of just 5.5 million people. Finland is not the richest nation either among the 149 countries surveyed by Gallup World Poll: more than one dozen other nations beat the country's GDP per capita.

We know what you are thinking. What does it even mean to be a happy country during a global pandemic? It is often said that even in the worst of times there is joy to be found, and the report backs this adage with plenty of data. Indeed, compared to the previous editions of the ranking, the Covid-19 outbreak seems to have done little to change the overall levels of self-reported life satisfaction, and not just in Finland. “Given how all lives have been so importantly disrupted, it is remarkable that the averages are so stable,” the report stated. Although more people reported feelings of sadness, anxiety or anger than they had in previous years, globally positive emotions were almost three times more frequent than negative emotions on average.

That is good news especially for the Europeans, who dominate the ranking with 9 countries in the top 10. Nordic nations in particular continue to excel as they traditionally have since the ranking was launched in 2013.

But make no mistake: in these nations people have suffered during the pandemic. However, what sets them apart from those further down the ranking is support systems that soften the impact of certain shocks. What is exactly their right mix of ingredients for happiness? High GDP per capita, social support in times of need, absence of corruption in government, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity or charity towards others: these are the original “six key variables" that the researchers have used over time in their report on global life satisfaction. During the pandemic however, two of them mattered more than all the others: the ability to trust other people and confidence in public institutions.

“We find that social and institutional trust are the only main determinants of subjective well-being that show a strong carry-forward into success in fighting Covid-19,” the researchers at the UN wrote.  As a result, they explained, those countries which already had higher levels of trust proved more able to keep death rates low and social cohesion high, allowing them to maintain their uppermost positions in the ranking.

Measuring trust in a society is not an easy task. In their 210-page study, the happiness experts offer plenty of detailed charts, graphs and historical data. As an alternative, you can skip all that and ask yourself a simple question: how worried would you be if you lost your wallet? To feel that it would be returned by a police officer, a neighbor or a stranger, tells a lot about how happy you and the people around you are. Not only that, it is a more powerful predictor of individual wellbeing than wealth. Money, as the report has proved time and again and this year more than ever, truly does not buy happiness.


#10 | AUSTRIA

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With low unemployment and inequality rates and high income per capita and life expectancy, this small heaven of just 8.7 million people is an ideal place to live during a crisis such as the one the world experienced over the past year. Although slipping one spot from the previous edition of the ranking, the general level of life satisfaction expressed by the Austrian population remained almost unchanged. Austrians’ excellent quality of life goes hand in hand with their strong sense of community and civic duty, and these qualities proved more precious than ever during the pandemic. Their experience also confirms the report’s conclusions when it comes to social connections: in a survey conducted in late April 2020, those with larger networks of people they could rely on reported feeling less sad and stressed during lockdowns and other Covid-related restrictions.


#9 | NEW ZEALAND

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Home to about 5 million people (and 26 million sheep), New Zealand too—the only non-European nation in the ranking— slipped one spot from last year. Entering 2021, the country recorded about 2,150 cases and just 25 deaths due to Covid-19, a sign of the pandemic's relatively minor social and economic disruption compared to other countries.

Kiwis take their happiness seriously and are quick to spring into action when something threatens it. They enacted stringent measures to control the spread of the virus very early on and they stuck to them. Two other factors, the researchers of the happiness report say, might have played a positive role in limiting transmissions: being an island nation (which makes population movements easier to control) is associated with fewer cases and deaths; having a female head of government—and especially one as effective and well-liked as Jacinta Arden—is twice the luck.


#8 | LUXEMBOURG

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Just five years ago, this land of castles, lakes and rolling hills occupied the 20th position in the happiness ranking. Luxembourg made it into the top 10 in the 2020 edition of the report, and it gained two additional spots since then. 

Yet, how does that square with the fact that one in 10 of its citizens contracted Covid-19, almost more than anywhere else globally? The explanation is fairly simple: the Grand Duchy represents a positive example of more testing resulting in higher official case numbers. According to Our World in Data, Luxembourg performed more tests per population than any other nation in the world, which translated into handling the pandemic better as well.

Certainly, the fact that this very small nation of a little over 600,000 people scores above average in social connections and subjective well-being helped too. And while money cannot buy happiness, it does not hurt that Luxembourg is among the richest countries in the world where workers enjoy an average gross salary of roughly 5,000 euros per month.


#7 | SWEDEN

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Sweden's controversial approach to the pandemic has been widely criticized. The country never went into lockdown or imposed strict social-distancing measures in a (failed) initial attempt to achieve herd immunity. As a result, it experienced more cases and deaths than its Nordic neighbors.

How have these events weighed on Swedes’ self-evaluation of wellbeing? Every edition of the World Happiness Report combines data from the previous three years of surveys to make the sample size large enough and to reduce the random sampling errors—following this methodology, Sweden takes the seventh position in the ranking for the third year in a row. What happens if we try, as the researchers did, to single out just 2020? Contrary to what one can expect, Sweden would not fall in ranking even then, but would instead climb one extra spot.

Sweden has consistently ranked high in the list thanks to the two key elements of happiness that proved particularly important through all the trials and tribulations of 2020: its strong social support networks and perceived honesty and accountability of its institutions.

That has not changed due to the pandemic. Admitting they flubbed the Covid-19 response, Swedish officials—including the prime minister and the chief state epidemiologist—apologized to the nation. Even king Carl XVI Gustaf, in an end-of-year interview, admitted his disappointment: “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died, and that is terrible.”


#6 | NORWAY

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It is one the most prosperous countries in the world—and one of the most virtuous. Norwegians think that democracy should enforce equality. The result is less income and gender disparity, excellent free healthcare and more confidence in elected officials. Social and institutional trust, as we have learned, emerged as crucial factors in determining the well-being of citizens in 2020 and Norway has mostly been successful in keeping Covid-19 mortality rates low and mitigating the economic impact of lockdowns.

While over the past few years Norwegians have been slipping in the ranking (they were in the third-place spot in 2019 and the fifth in 2020), it's doubtful anyone will be devastated over being the sixth happiest country in the world.


#5 | THE NETHERLANDS

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A fixture of the happiness report’s top 10, the Netherlands retakes the number five position it held two years ago. That, of course, does not mean that the Dutch have not had their share of coronavirus-induced problems.

When the pandemic broke early in 2020, the government launched a series of both voluntary and involuntary so-called “intelligent lockdown measures” aimed at minimizing new infections while keeping the economy running as much as possible. They worked—at least for a while. As the year progressed, against a backdrop of rising infections and newly introduced months-long lockdowns, people started growing impatient. When last January the government imposed the first nationwide curfew since World War II, violent demonstrations exploded in the streets of all major cities.

While the happiness report does not reflect events that have taken place after 2020, these most recent incidents are unlikely to weigh too heavily on the country’s standing in the ranking next year. Not only they have involved a small fraction of the population, but today the Dutch score well when it comes to social connections and institutional trust, and remain more affluent, educated and freer to make their own life choices than at any point in their country’s history.


#4 | ICELAND

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Iceland routinely tops a wide variety of quality of life rankings. Chosen by both the World Economic Forum as the best country in the world for gender equality and the Institute for Economics and Peace as the most peaceful for more than 10 years in a row, this republic of just a little over 360,000 is also a shining example of how to handle a pandemic—to this day, Iceland has recorded less than 30 deaths due to Covid-19.

While health officials rushed to contain the spread of the coronavirus earlier than most countries through aggressive testing and contact tracing, the government guaranteed the payment of the full salary to those suspected of being infected—in other words, Icelanders did not have to worry about losing their wages and stayed at home when they needed to. Furthermore, similarly to New Zealand, the fact that Iceland has a small population, it is an island and has a female prime minister helped too.

Iceland thus maintains for the third year in a row the fourth position in the happiness ranking—and with its enchanting landscapes, free healthcare and education, and extraordinary collective sense of trust and community, it is no surprise that once again it came so close to the top of the UN index.


#3 | SWITZERLAND

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After conquering the first spot in the 2015's World Happiness Report, Switzerland slowly started losing ground until, two years ago, it reached its lowest position in the ranking ever at sixth. While the researchers point out that people’s happiness levels tend to be closer to one another in the top-ranking countries, Switzerland still managed to take back the third spot last year, and to maintain it during a very difficult 2020.  In fact, after the first wave, this nation of about 8.5 million relaxed its pandemic measures faster than other European countries, a mistake it almost immediately paid with a sharp increase in the number of confirmed cases and deaths.

However, even Covid-19 cannot change the fact that the country seems to have been created precisely for the pursuit of a happy life.  Switzerland can boast postcard landscapes and clean air, state of the art infrastructure and education services, both great wealth and equal distribution of resources. Making chocolate and cheese and not war helps too: Switzerland is notoriously neutral and has not been involved in a war since 1847.


#2 | DENMARK

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Coming in runner-up for the third year in a row, Denmark topped the list in the first report, in 2012, and again in 2013 and 2016. Nordic countries, the authors of the report noted, share similar social and political models and values. That explains why all of them feature among the 10 happiest nations in the world and why they often swap places on the happiness podium.

That’s not to say that, faced with the unprecedented threat of the pandemic, these countries followed similar and equally successful trajectories in containing it. Denmark did so well during Europe’s first wave of Covid-19 that, in the springtime of 2020, its chief epidemiologist predicted that a second wave was “very unlikely”. He was wrong, and by fall the country’s rates of infection and death were much higher than in the neighboring Finland and Norway.

Still, Danes have plenty of reasons to be content with their way of living: their country scores high when it comes to work-life balance, environment and healthcare. Denmark also prides itself on having one of the smallest wealth gaps in the world—and a society where people share both the burdens and the benefits equally, the report shows, is a happier society.


#1 | FINLAND

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Finland did it again. It vaulted from fifth place to the top of the ranking three years ago and seems determined to stay firmly put. Finland has not been immune from the pandemic. Yet, it moved quickly and comprehensively and it handled it better than most of its counterparts.

To take their mind off their problems, Finns also have a lot going for them. This country of very happy people enjoys high standards of living, a thriving cultural life and 3 million very relaxing saunas. With more forest per square mile than any other European nation, many Finns also credit their connection with nature and the outdoors for their satisfaction with life.

To not be selfish, the reigning champion of happiness even offers tips to the rest of world on how to live better. Through its tourism organization, it recommends a lot of swimming, hiking and biking, and walks in forests overflowing with berries, mushrooms and wild herbs. You don’t have anything like that where you live? You can still go visit—once you are vaccinated and the country fully reopens its borders, of course.


WORLD'S HAPPIEST COUNTRIES

149 countries ranked by per capita income, social support networks, healthy life expectancy, individual freedom, philanthropy, and the absence of corruption in government and business
1 Finland 76 Russia
2 Denmark 77 Hong Kong S.A.R. of China
3 Switzerland 78 Tajikistan
4 Iceland 79 Vietnam
5 Netherlands 80 Libya
6 Norway 81 Malaysia
7 Sweden 82 Indonesia
8 Luxembourg 83 Congo
9 New Zealand 84 China
10 Austria 85 Ivory Coast
11 Australia 86 Armenia
12 Israel 87 Nepal
13 Germany 88 Bulgaria
14 Canada 89 Maldives
15 Ireland 90 Azerbaijan
16 Costa Rica 91 Cameroon
17 United Kingdom 92 Senegal
18 Czech Republic 93 Albania
19 United States 94 North Macedonia
20 Belgium 95 Ghana
21 France 96 Niger
22 Bahrain 97 Turkmenistan
23 Malta 98 Gambia
24 Taiwan Province of China 99 Benin
25 United Arab Emirates 100 Laos
26 Saudi Arabia 101 Bangladesh
27 Spain 102 Guinea
28 Italy 103 South Africa
29 Slovenia 104 Turkey
30 Guatemala 105 Pakistan
31 Uruguay 106 Morocco
32 Singapore 107 Venezuela
33 Kosovo 108 Georgia
34 Slovakia 109 Algeria
35 Brazil 110 Ukraine
36 Mexico 111 Iraq
37 Jamaica 112 Gabon
38 Lithuania 113 Burkina Faso
39 Cyprus 114 Cambodia
40 Estonia 115 Mozambique
41 Panama 116 Nigeria
42 Uzbekistan 117 Mali
43 Chile 118 Iran
44 Poland 119 Uganda
45 Kazakhstan 120 Liberia
46 Romania 121 Kenya
47 Kuwait 122 Tunisia
48 Serbia 123 Lebanon
49 El Salvador 124 Namibia
50 Mauritius 125 Palestinian Territories
51 Latvia 126 Myanmar
52 Colombia 127 Jordan
53 Hungary 128 Chad
54 Thailand 129 Sri Lanka
55 Nicaragua 130 Swaziland
56 Japan 131 Comoros
57 Argentina 132 Egypt
58 Portugal 133 Ethiopia
59 Honduras 134 Mauritania
60 Croatia 135 Madagascar
61 Philippines 136 Togo
62 South Korea 137 Zambia
63 Peru 138 Sierra Leone
64 Bosnia and Herzegovina 139 India
65 Moldova 140 Burundi
66 Ecuador 141 Yemen
67 Kyrgyzstan 142 Tanzania
68 Greece 143 Haiti
69 Bolivia 144 Malawi
70 Mongolia 145 Lesotho
71 Paraguay 146 Botswana
72 Montenegro 147 Rwanda
73 Dominican Republic 148 Zimbabwe
74 North Cyprus 149 Afghanistan 
75 Belarus             
Source: The UN's 2021 World Happiness Report.

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