Europe's dominance of the World Happiness ranking was unshaken by the global pandemic.

Author: Luca Ventura

INTRODUCTION

European countries dominated the ranking of the annual World Happiness Report since it was released for the first time in 2013. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck—and nothing changed.

This is the most surprising finding of survey compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network at the United Nations in collaboration with the Gallup World Poll: irrespective of how big or small the toll on people’s lives, the coronavirus outbreak seems to have done little to change the rankings in comparison to the previous editions of the survey, and not just when it comes to the countries in the top positions of the index.

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. Emotions changed and worsened during lockdowns, with a roughly 10% increase globally in the number of people who said they were worried or sad. Yet, there has been incredible resilience in how they rated their lives overall.

Make no mistake: even in the nations in the very top positions of the Happiness Index people have suffered greatly. The report does not shy away from pointing out that much of that suffering could have been avoided, calling out both those public officials who sent counterproductive or contradictory messages and those citizens who rejected even the most basic health measures such as wearing face masks and respecting social distancing guidelines.

Why, then, the pandemic had such little impact on people’s perception of their wellbeing and quality of life? The reason lies in the presence of different types of support systems that can soften the impact of certain shocks. That is particularly true for most European nations which, along with being rich, tend to value social connections and equality, and have implemented strong domestic systems of social protection.

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 six key variables that the researchers use in their report to evaluate life satisfaction. The European nations topping the happiness ranking do exceptionally well in all of these categories. Even Covid-19 could not change that, and the five happiest nations in Europe are also the happiest nations in the world as a whole.


#5 | 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 on 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 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, the fact that Iceland has a small population, it is an island and has a female prime minister—all factors that the authors of the happiness report have highlighted as positive in limiting transmissions—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 global (and European) 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 study 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 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 underscores, 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 extremely 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.

Happiest Countries in Europe

 

Global Rank

 

Regional Rank

 

Country

1 1 Finland
2 2 Denmark
3 3 Switzerland
4 4 Iceland
5 5 Netherlands
6 6 Norway
7 7 Sweden
8 8 Luxembourg
10 9 Austria
13 10 Germany
15 11 Ireland
17 12 United Kingdom
18 13 Czech Republic
20 14 Belgium
21 15 France
23 16 Malta
27 17 Spain
28 18 Italy
29 19 Slovenia
33 20 Kosovo
34 21 Slovakia
38 22 Lithuania
39 23 Cyprus
40 24 Estonia
44 25 Poland
46 26 Romania
48 27 Serbia
51 28 Latvia
53 29 Hungary
58 30 Portugal
60 28 Croatia
64 29 Bosnia and Herzegovina
65 30 Moldova
68 31 Greece
72 32 Montenegro
74 33 North Cyprus
75 34 Belarus
76 35 Russia
88 36 Bulgaria
93 37 Albania
94 38 North Macedonia
104 39 Turkey
110 40 Ukraine
Source: The UN's 2021 World Happiness Report.