Some of these nations handled the pandemic well and some did not. It almost made no difference in how people evaluated their satisfaction with life.

Author: Luca Ventura

INTRODUCTION

The 2021 edition of the World Happiness Report has specifically explored how some Asian countries such as China and South Korea managed to weather the pandemic better than others in the region and how people’s emotional wellbeing was affected by policy. Their success in containing Covid-19 can be attributed to better civic cooperation in relation to their government responses. These measures included stringent physical distancing and mobility control rules, as well as comprehensive testing, tracing, and isolation policies. By contrast, the weaker strategies put in place by Japan were associated with one of the worst performances on the continent.

Yet certain positive results in battling the spread of the virus—as also proved by the experience of other nations worldwide—did not necessarily translate into significant leaps towards the top positions of the happiness index, the same way poor outcomes did not lead to dramatic drops in the ranking.

2020 brought so much pain and so many challenges to everyone, it is only natural to associate the idea of happiness (or the lack of it) to how small (or big) has been the toll taken by Covid-19 on our lives. However, many are the elements that contribute to determining one’s satisfaction with life, which also explains why the averages of the 149 countries surveyed in the report proved remarkably stable in comparison to before the start of the pandemic.

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 six key variables used by the researchers to evaluate people’s wellbeing. With one clear takeaway: whichever obstacle life throws at us, a balance of all these ingredients is the true recipe for long-term happiness.


#10 | MONGOLIA

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Over the past five years, the Mongolian People's Republic climbed 30 spots in the Happiness Index to the 70th position it holds today. Its improvement is even more remarkable when we consider that during a very difficult 2020 its citizens rated their satisfaction with life at a little over 6 on a scale 1 to 10, an improvement of more than half a point compared to the 2017-2019 average.

Why are Mongolians becoming happier each year, then? During the past three decades, the country tripled its GDP, slashed its poverty rates and through a solid 12-year compulsory educational system strengthened the foundations of its current economic success.

However, as we know, money is not everything, and Mongolians have not forgotten what really matters. These lessons are learned early on: a new academic study compared how children define happiness in Finland, Japan and Mongolia. For Finnish children, happiness appeared to be related to personal achievement and success; Japanese kids often characterize happiness as not experiencing unpleasant events or being scolded; for Mongolian children, happiness was predominantly described by referencing their family relationships and community.


#9 | KYRGYZSTAN

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Like Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan is one the countries that showed the most improvement from years past in the Happiness Report. It ranked 98th in 2017, 92nd a year later, then 86th, 74th and all the way up to the 67th position it currently occupies—this beautiful country in Central Asia you can’t spell must be doing something right. A safe and welcoming place to visit, Kyrgyzstan’s population of 6.5 million live sometimes harsh, but tranquil and gregarious lives. Not surprisingly, out of all the key components contributing to happiness, Kyrgyz people score particularly well in the departments of social support and healthy life expectancy.

That said, this former Soviet Republic is no paradise. Corruption at the institutional level is a problem and the gap between the have and have-nots is increasing. Yet, living standards have been gradually improving for everyone and Kyrgyzstan has been recently re-classified by the World Bank from a low income to a lower-middle income country. Furthermore, with a population whose median age is just 26, enthusiasm and confidence in the future are ubiquitous.


#8 | SOUTH KOREA

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Despite experiencing three waves of infections in 2020, South Korea was remarkably successful in containing the pandemic, and never went into full lockdown. The country’s testing capacity was greatly enhanced after the MERS outbreak in 2015, and the government’s “testing, tracing, treating” strategy kicked in within days after the first reported case of coronavirus in late January.

Most importantly, people got it. The Happiness Report compared three dimensions, or cultural traits, of the population of a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, as well as the United States: individualism versus collectivism, long-term orientation versus short-term orientation, and indulgence versus restraint. Containing the spread of Covid-19 clearly requires that people are disciplined and sacrifice their personal needs and short-term interests (such as personal freedom and not wearing mask) for the long-term benefit of going back to life as it was before the coronavirus. Along with ranking the third least-indulgent country, South Koreans performed better than their counterparts when it came to their sense of common good and long-term orientation (Western nations, you guessed right, did not so well).

And it almost goes without saying that, aside from Covid, selflessness and sense of duty—which are directly related to a number of variables that can boost individual wellbeing—can make a country rather happy.


#7 | PHILIPPINES

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If we look at the GDP per-capita figures, the Philippines is far behind nations like Indonesia, China or Malaysia. If we look at the World Happiness Index, the Philippines are well ahead of all of them.

In truth, Filipinos felt less happy in 2020 than the year before, when they occupied the 52nd spot in the ranking compared to their current 61st position. Despite the slip-up, this country of about 110 million has shown one of the greatest improvements in the United Nations’ ranking climbing more than 30 positions in less than a decade.

The reason why the Philippines overperforms in comparison to many wealthier nations on the continent seems to be a result of increased income, trust in public institutions and life expectancy. Filipinos also earn excellent scores in the personal connection category—or, as one pundit commented online a while ago, when it comes to the five F’s: family, friends, food, fun and faith.


#6 | JAPAN

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When the pandemic hit, the World Happiness Report notes, the Japanese government did not implement mobility control measures such as lockdowns due to certain constitutional limitations. Subsequent amendments to the law made it possible to declare a "state of emergency,” but most recommendations remained voluntary rather than mandatory. Testing too has not been extensive, but only targeted to people with potential symptoms. The result has been soaring cases and deaths, along with the economy shrinking in 2020 by 4.8%, the first contraction since 2009.

“Japan is as happy as it feels—miserable,” was a headline a few years ago published by The Japan Times. That was perhaps an exaggeration, but that there are reasons for concern is not in doubt: the country is increasingly unequal, the population aging rapidly, and the government—to confront a sudden surge in suicides—has recently appointed its first “minister of loneliness.”

Nonetheless, Japan has gained six spots in the happiness index from the previous edition of the report. Not only that, on a scale from 1 to 10, taken into account all the six variables that contribute to happiness, its citizens rated their satisfaction with life at about 6, the highest since 2015. How do we explain that? Apparently, not even the Japanese could. 


#5 | THAILAND

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Last year Thailand has been roiled by anti-government demonstrations, a ruinous country-wide drought, and the pandemic-induced collapse of the tourism sector. Despite all of that, the country’s happiness global ranking remained unchanged at 54th place.

Healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices and interpersonal relations: these are the categories where Thailand tends to perform well even during a global pandemic.


#4 | KAZAKHSTAN

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In the space of just two years, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, Kazakhstan climbed fifteen spots in the World Happiness Report. About Covid-19: some might be surprised to learn that this former member of the USSR of about 19 million was able to develop and roll out its own vaccine, QazVac, which claimed 96% efficacy in the second stage of clinical trials.

But Kazakhstan is a surprising nation on all accounts. Home to over 120 ethnic groups and nationalities, it is the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth-largest. Trivia questions about the country could potentially include a myriad of too-long-to-delve-into details about snow leopards, caviar, rockets and mythical Amazon warriors. Factors other than these odd bits of trivia better explain why Kazakhstan is happier than many richer nations in both the East and the West. That is not to say that it is poor: an upper-middle-income country rich in oil and gas, according to the Asian Development Bank only about 4% of the population lives below the poverty line. The population is very young too: about half is under the age of 30, and one-fourth is under 15.

Despite all shortcomings and problems that a country might experience (and in the case of Kazakhstan its autocratic regime is one of them), the Happiness Report has repeatedly pointed out that a younger population generally means a happier one too.


#3 | UZBEKISTAN

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This ex-Soviet Republic is Central Asia's most populous country and one of the happiest. According to the report of the United Nations, its 34 million citizens score well when it comes to how much control they feel they have over their lives, to social support and to generosity towards others. Uzbekistan is also becoming increasingly wealthier: 20 years ago its poverty rate was almost at 30%, today it is closer to 10%. Along the way, the economy has often grown by more than 7% annually, and 10 years ago the World Bank re-classified the country from a low-income to a lower middle-income nation.

Rich in natural resources, Uzbekistan has undertaken large-scale reforms to diversify the economy and attract foreign investors and is seen as a stabilizing force in the region. Yet, the asserted freedom enjoyed by the Uzbekistanis to make their life decisions seems to be in contrast with their freedom in the political sphere: following the death of Islam Karimov, authoritarian ruler for 27 years, in 2016 former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the presidential elections with 88% of the vote amid reports of widespread irregularities. The internet and the press remain subject to tight censorship.


#2 | SINGAPORE

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Singapore is one of the ultra-rich countries of the world, why isn’t ultra-happy too then? Ranking in second place in Asia and 32nd worldwide is nothing to complain about, yet there are much poorer nations scoring far higher on the happiness index.

The old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness might be tired and overused, but an overwhelming number of studies has proved it true time and time again. In the World Happiness Report, Singapore does indeed do very well when it comes to income, institutional trust and healthy life expectancy too, but not so great in the categories of generosity towards others and strength of social support. Personal relationships, and not money, are the real superchargers of happiness.


#1 | TAIWAN

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Taiwan got used to scoring high in the World Happiness Report when it comes to GDP per capita, life expectancy and social support—the latter being a reflection of a society where multigenerational families often live together and community is valued over individuality.

Taiwan has also done an impressive job in stopping the pandemic on its tracks from the onset, and never went into lockdown. This success helped the country gain one spot in the ranking from last year (to 24), bringing it a little closer—when we consider the entire Asia-Pacific region—to New Zealand and Australia, in the spots number nine and 11 of the global ranking index, respectively. 

Yet, not everything is blissful on this island of about 24 million: Taiwan has been independent since 1949, but China views it as a breakaway province. In recent years, Beijing stepped up its military activities and flew warplanes near the island, heightening fears that it will try to recover control over its former territory.

Happiest Countries in Asia

 

Global Rank

 

Regional Rank

 

Country

24 1 Taiwan
32 2 Singapore
42 3 Uzbekistan
45 4 Kazakhstan
54 5 Thailand
56 6 Japan
61 7 Philippines
62 8 South Korea
67 9 Kyrgyzstan
70 10 Mongolia
77 11 Hong Kong S.A.R. of China
78 12 Tajikistan
79 13 Vietnam
81 14 Malaysia
84 15 Indonesia
87 16 China
87 17 Armenia
89 18 Nepal
100 19 Maldives
90 20 Azerbaijan
97 21 Turkmenistan
100 22 Laos
101 23 Bangladesh
105 24 Pakistan
108 25 Georgia
114 26 Cambodia
126 27 Myanmar
129 28 Sri Lanka
139 29 India
149 30 Afghanistan
Source: The UN's 2021 World Happiness Report.