Overview:

The World Happiness Report 2022 is out. Where does your country feature? Are you happy? Find out what might make for a happy existence

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Happiness is the elixir of life, the Holy Grail of humanity. Arguably, the meaning of life. For the nonreligious (well everybody, really), this life down here is the only one we get to have. So let’s try to make the most of it.

For many, that’s easier said than done. We can all think of people and countries around the world where families struggle to get above the first rung or two of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It turns out that some countries do a lot better job of living than others.

It’s a happy anniversary. To be more precise, it’s the 10th anniversary of the UN’s World Happiness Report. The report looks at data as a three-year average from 150 different countries to compile a list of the happiest countries, the saddest, and the “meh”s in between, while also trying to evaluate the variables and factors involved.

With two years of global pandemic in the books, you might think that our happiness quotients would have taken a nosedive. It turns out, however, that the data suggests a global move toward benevolence.

One of the editors, John Helliwell, told CNN Travel, “The big surprise was that globally, in an uncoordinated way, there have been very large increases in all the three forms of benevolence that are asked about in the Gallup World Poll.”

These three markers of benevolence—donating to charity, helping strangers, and volunteering—have all seen an uptick in 2021 compared to 2020 or before the pandemic. And, for helping strangers, the move has been particularly positive.

“In general, people are too pessimistic about the goodwill in the societies they live in, so when the actual disaster happens and they see other people responding positively to help others, it raises their opinion both of themselves and of their fellow citizens.”

John Helliwell, HAPPINESS report editor

Of course the helping of strangers is even more topical right now, especially in Europe. The Happiness Report observes:

[T]he most remarkable change seen during COVID-19 has been the global upsurge in benevolence in 2021. This benevolence has provided notable support for the life evaluations of givers, receivers, and observers, who have been gratified to see their community’s readiness to reach out to help each other in times of need. In every global region, there have been large increases in the proportion of people who give money to charity, help strangers, and do voluntary work in every global region. Altogether the global average of these three measures was up by a quarter in 2021, compared with before the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also demonstrated the crucial importance of trust for human well-being. Deaths from COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021 have been markedly lower in those countries with higher trust in public institutions and where inequality is lower.

Who wins?

It probably comes as no surprise to readers who have a passing knowledge of this sort of analysis that the Nordic countries fare very well. Indeed, Finland is the happiest in the world. (It must be noted that this data was collected before their overbearing neighbor strived for regional dominance through acts of terror and violence.)

You’re still gonna die, Finland

The second two spots are taken by Denmark and Iceland, giving the rest of the world little chance at achieving happiness greatness. Rather selfishly in terms of the top 10, Sweden and Norway come in at 7th and 8th.

To be rather North America- and UK-centric, Canada pips the US (16th) and the UK (17th) into 15th place. This is probably to do with having more snow, and thus more snowmen. This theory (my own) also fits with Nordic dominance. I am fairly sure that the US only beats the UK because they pretend to be happier. You know, “Have a nice day,” and all that.

For those who love a list, the top 20 reads as follows:

1. Finland, 2. Denmark, 3. Iceland, 4. Switzerland, 5. Netherlands, 6. Luxembourg, 7. Sweden, 8. Norway, 9. Israel, 10. New Zealand, 11. Austria, 12. Australia, 13. Ireland, 14. Germany, 15. Canada, 16. United States, 17. United Kingdom, 18. Czechia (Czech Republic),19. Belgium, 20. France

Don’t worry

The pandemic did have an effect of increasing stress and worry levels by 8% in 2020, but the move back to pre-pandemic levels saw that rise pull back to 4% in 2021. We’re moving in the right direction. It appears that once we got a psychological handle on COVID and the ramifications and threats it represented, we were able to rein in the worst of our anxieties.

As the Happiness Report states:

The 2021 data confirm the 2020 finding that average life evaluations, reflecting the net effects of offsetting negative and positive influences, have remained remarkably resilient during COVID-19. For the young, life satisfaction has fallen, while for those over 60, it has risen — with little overall change. 

In this context, CNN also reported in talking to Helliwell:

Helliwell acknowledges that there’s a sense that crises bring out either the best or the worst in societies.

“But in general, people are too pessimistic about the goodwill in the societies they live in, so then when the actual disaster happens and they see other people responding positively to help others, it raises their opinion both of themselves and of their fellow citizens,” Helliwell said.”

And so you find both trust in others and general life evaluations often rise in times when you think ‘these are bad times,’ but what’s happening is people are working together to deal with them.”

It will be interesting to see whether the war in Ukraine has a lasting effect on countries outside of Ukraine and Russia themselves. The ramifications of the conflict will be felt very tangibly for the neighbors, with huge strains on infrastructure, welfare, and societies at large as a result of huge influxes of refugees.

Furthermore, the rising costs of pretty much everything, impacted by the war, will affect people much further afield than Poland, Moldova, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Georgia.

Multifaceted research

There is a lot to be garnered from the Happiness Report. It covered a lot of ground, including biomarkers for happiness, social media analysis, happiness content in print and digital media, and the growing interest in happiness research from different organizations and governments. For example:

Millions of people share their thoughts and feelings online via social media each day. Automated analysis of social media data offers exciting promise for measuring trends in emotions. The methods used include counts of emotional words listed in emotion dictionaries and machine learning methods which also take into account the structure and meaning of sentences.

And:

Genetic studies involving twin or family designs reveal that about 30-40% of the differences in happiness between people within a country are accounted for by genetic differences between people. The other 60-70% of differences between people result from the effect of environmental influences that are independent of the genes.

I would advise a good read of the Happiness Report. You might feel better about yourself and the world in general.

What underwrites a happy country? The variables are plentiful (split into life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions): GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support (welfare and someone to count on in times of trouble), a sense of freedom to make life decisions (and thus control over one’s life), perceived levels of corruption, trust in public institutions, doing or learning something of interest, smiling and laughing, the aforementioned measures of prosocial behavior, well-being inequality within regions, sadness, anger, worry and stress, and so on.

There is a lot to be said for economic stability and strong welfare states. “It’s the economy, stupid” is a phrase that springs to mind. Get the economy right, you get the tax dollars, get the tax dollars, you get good welfare and education. The EU seems to know this, and this is perhaps why we see such great growth among Eastern European countries, newer additions to the bloc:

The largest trend increases were in Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and the 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.

I have long said the following. Let’s assume happiness is a non-derivative goal for humanity (one that you can’t derive further down to another reason when asked why you want to be happy). Given this, and given the desire for evidence-based policy-making, we should look at the countries at the top of the list and find out what they are doing. As much as possible, we should copy their policies (while also recognizing that cultural and contextual differences might make this inappropriate in every case).

The challenge is that not every country has oodles of natural resources (think oil for Norway and how it provides their Sovereign Wealth Fund), and so can’t compete economically, and thus not every country can fund such welfare and education systems that help generate well-being and happiness.

Which is to say that there is a large dollop of luck involved in being happy. It depends where you were born and what genes you were born with.

Other than that, give us a smile.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...