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 fifth 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 146 countries and territories surveyed by Gallup World Poll: more than 20 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 in a world still rattled by the pandemic and, now, the war in Ukraine? 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. Since the ranking was launched in 2013, the researchers at the UN have demonstrated time and time again that communities with high levels of trust are happier and more resilient when a crisis hits. "Helping strangers, volunteering, and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25% above their pre-pandemic prevalence,” said John Helliwell, professor at the University of British Columbia and one of the chief editors of the report. He continued, “This surge of benevolence, which was especially great for the helping of strangers, provides powerful evidence that people respond to help others in need, creating in the process more happiness for the beneficiaries, good examples for others to follow, and better lives for themselves."

While the survey was conducted prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine, it confirms last year’s surprising findings when it comes to the pandemic. The Covid-19 outbreak seems to have done little to change the overall levels of self-reported life satisfaction, and that is good news especially for Europea, who dominate the ranking with 8 countries in the top 10. Nordic nations in particular continue to excel as they have historically.

But make no mistake: people in these nations suffered during the pandemic. However, what set them apart from those further down the ranking is support systems that softened 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.

The quality of the social context has also affected progress in fighting COVID-19. Several studies within nations, the researchers at the UN say, have found that regions with high social capital have been more successful in reducing rates of infection and deaths. As a result, 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 158-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 in these troubled times more than ever—truly does not buy happiness.


#10 | NEW ZEALAND

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Home to about 5 million people (and 26 million sheep), New Zealand falls one spot in the ranking. Only in the next edition of the report, however, will we be able to understand how the recent surge in Covid-cases affected its citizens’ sense of wellbeing. Once applauded as a shining example on how to handle the pandemic, in the first months of 2022 the number of infections skyrocketed, going from daily cases in the tens and hundreds to over 30,000. Blame the highly contagious Omicron variant or the fact that people resigned to the idea of living with Covid and gave up on the seemingly impossible pursuit of eradicating the virus, New Zealanders are not as happy as ever: on a scale from 1 to 10, taking into account all the six variables that contribute to happiness, they rated their satisfaction with life at 7.2—a score enviable to most countries on earth, yet their lowest average ever.

It is certainly a temporary slip: Kiwis take their happiness seriously and know that preserving it needs work and constant planning. To the extent, the Happiness Report points out, that the country has for three years branded its budget as a “well-being budget” and in the 2021’s edition of the document the second page was entirely devoted to reporting statistics of happiness.


#9 | ISRAEL

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Last year, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel managed to gain two spots and reach the 12th position in the World Happiness Report. While there is evidence that high infection and death rates within a country do not change significantly the overall happiness score, people’s perception of how their country has handled the pandemic can contribute to a rise in wellbeing, and Israel did a great job.

So much so that in the newest edition of the ranking Israel earns three extra spots, vaulting for the first time into the top 10. But it is also worth noting that since the index was released for the first time a decade ago Israel never slipped below the 14th spot—in other words, it is one of the most consistently happy countries in the world.

Many, over the years, have wondered how this nation of 9.2 million—surrounded by hostile neighbors and perpetually embroiled in conflict—could truly be so happy.  Easy answer: happiness is not just determined by the presence or the lack of one given element. Israel is a rich and vibrant country where people can rely on strong community ties and feel they can decide how to pursue their goals in life.


#8 | NORWAY

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It is one of 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 during the pandemic 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 Norway has been slipping in the ranking (they were in the third-place spot in 2019, the fifth in 2020 and the sixth last year), there is no doubt that its social model remains an extraordinary success story.


#7 | SWEDEN

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

How have these events weighed on Swedes’ self-evaluation of wellbeing? Apparently, they haven’t: Sweden takes the seventh position in the ranking for the fourth year in a row.

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 these past two years: its strong social support networks and the perceived honesty and accountability of its institutions—and that has not changed due to the pandemic.


#6 | 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 every year since then. 

But how does that square with the fact that for a while it was considered one of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots? The explanation is fairly simple: the Grand Duchy represents a positive example of more testing resulting in higher official case numbers. At that time, Luxembourg was performing more tests per population than any other nation globally, which translated into handling the pandemic better as well.

Certainly, the fact that this very small nation of about 630,000 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.


#5 | THE NETHERLANDS

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A fixture of the happiness report’s top 10, the Netherlands maintains its number five position in the ranking. 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, in January last year, the government imposed the first nationwide curfew since World War II, violent demonstrations exploded in the streets of all major cities.

There are several reasons, however, why these incidents did not weigh too heavily on the country’s standing in the ranking. 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 | SWITZERLAND

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After conquering the first spot in the 2015's World Happiness Report, Switzerland slowly started losing ground until, three years ago, it reached its lowest position ever in the ranking 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 then managed to take back the third spot in the list and maintain it during a very difficult 2020. It does, however, lose one position in the edition of the report, which is less due to the Swiss feeling crankier and more to improvements in the overall score of other top-performing countries.

Fear not, Switzerland remains a country that seems to have been created precisely for the pursuit of a happy life. It 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. Or has it? In a sharp break with its past, Switzerland joined the European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.


#3 | 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 less than 350,000 is also a shining example of how to handle a pandemic: despite a recent spike due to the Omicron variant, Iceland entered 2022 with just 37 official deaths due to Covid-19.

What did it do right? In the early stages of the pandemic, health officials rushed to contain the spread of the coronavirus earlier than most countries through aggressive testing and contact tracing. In the meantime, 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. How did they keep busy? Making babies, apparently: births rose in most Nordic countries in 2020 and in all of them in 2022, but especially in Iceland, where they climbed 7.5%.

Iceland thus gains one 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.


#2 | DENMARK

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Coming in runner-up for the fourth 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 have noted in the past, 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.” As he soon learned, he was wrong.

Today, however, with roughly 85% of the population who have received at least one vaccination shot and nearly two-thirds who have received three, life is slowly getting back to a relatively new normal.

This means having plenty of reasons to be content with. Danes score high when it comes to work-life balance, environment and healthcare. They also pride themself 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 four 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 the world on how to live better. Along with a lot of swimming, hiking and biking, through its tourism organization it recommends long walks in forests overflowing with berries, mushrooms and wild herbs. You’ve never seen anything remotely like that where you live? That’s exactly point: they are telling you to come visit.


WORLD'S HAPPIEST COUNTRIES AND TERRITORIES

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 Ecuador
2 Denmark 77 Vietnam
3 Iceland 78 Turkmenistan
4 Switzerland 79 North Cyprus
5 Netherlands 80 Russia
6 Luxembourg 81 Hong Kong
7 Sweden 82 Armenia
8 Norway 83 Tajikistan
9 Israel 84 Nepal
10 New Zealand 85 Bulgaria
11 Austria 86 Libya
12 Australia 87 Indonesia
13 Ireland 88 Ivory Coast
14 Germany 89 North Macedonia
15 Canada 90 Albania
16 United States 91 South Africa
17 United Kingdom 92 Azerbaijan
18 Czech Republic 93 Gambia
19 Belgium 94 Bangladesh
20 France 95 Laos
21 Bahrain 96 Algeria
22 Slovenia 97 Liberia
23 Costa Rica 98 Ukraine
24 United Arab Emirates 99 Congo Brazzaville
25 Saudi Arabia 100 Morocco
26 Taiwan 101 Mozambique
27 Singapore 102 Cameroon
28 Romania 103 Senegal
29 Spain 104 Niger
30 Uruguay 105 Georgia
31 Italy 106 Gabon
32 Kosovo 107 Iraq
33 Malta 108 Venezuela
34 Lithuania 109 Guinea
35 Slovakia 110 Iran
36 Estonia 111 Ghana
37 Panama 112 Turkey
38 Brazil 113 Burkina Faso
39 Guatemala 114 Cambodia
40 Kazakhstan 115 Benin
41 Cyprus 116 Comoros
42 Latvia 117 Uganda
43 Serbia 118 Nigeria
44 Chile 119 Kenya
45 Nicaragua 120 Tunisia
46 Mexico 121 Pakistan
47 Croatia 122 Palestinian Territories
48 Poland 123 Mali
49 El Salvador 124 Namibia
50 Kuwait 125 Eswatini
51 Hungary 126 Myanmar
52 Mauritius 127 Sri Lanka
53 Uzbekistan 128 Madagascar
54 Japan 129 Egypt
55 Honduras 130 Chat
56 Portugal 131 Ethiopia
57 Argentina 132 Yemen
58 Greece 133 Mauritania
59 South Korea 134 Jordan
60 Philippines 135 Togo
61 Thailand 136 India
62 Moldova 137 Zambia
63 Jamaica 138 Malawi
64 Kyrgyzstan 139 Tanzania
65 Belarus 140 Sierra Leone
66 Colombia 141 Lesotho
67 Bosnia and Herzegovina 142 Botswana
68 Mongolia 143 Rwanda
69 Dominican Republic 144 Zimbabwe
70 Malaysia 145 Lebanon
71 Bolivia 146 Afghanistan
72 China    
73 Paraguay    
74 Peru    
75 Montenegro             
Source: The UN's 2022 World Happiness Report.

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