The 2020 World Happiness Report was just released, ranking the happiness levels of 153 countries. It may not seem like a banner moment to release the report, given the mass global misery from coronavirus, but it’s actually an especially important moment to analyze why the happiest nations are happy (and the Nordic nations, as usual, grabbed 4 out of 5 of the top spots) and why unhappy nations are not.

According to the researchers behind the report, released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the UN on March 20, this is a critical time to study the happiness of nations—because they can instruct us on what’s important in a pandemic and which countries are likely to handle and weather it well.

The report looks at six key variables to come to a happiness score: income, freedom, trust in government, healthy life expectancy, social support from family and friends, and generosity.

Top 10 Happiest Countries

1. Finland
2. Denmark
3. Switzerland
4. Iceland
5. Norway
6. Netherlands
7. Sweden
8. New Zealand
9. Austria
10. Luxembourg

The researchers note that the differences between the top eight countries are so small, that there’s a bit of movement among the top five each year. For 2020, Finland held onto its #1 spot for the third year in a row, a nation not known for being “smiley” but rather tough and resilient: They even have a word for their national “grit” (sisu). The report explains how the bedrock of happiness in Finland (and for the top 10) is a combination of high levels of trust (and a perception of low governmental corruption), strong social nets/welfare benefits, a strong democracy and government institutions, along with strong social connections and a sense of freedom and autonomy.

“The top 10 countries tend to rank high in all six variables, as well as emotional measures of wellbeing,” said co-editor John Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.

Small Is Beautiful: Superpowers Not Super Happy

Even BC (before coronavirus), not one of the world’s richest, biggest economies cracked the top 10. China ranked 94th (down from 93rd), Russia ranked 73rd (down from 68th), Japan came in 62nd (down from 58th), the UK ranked 13th (up from 15th), Germany remained in 17th place, while Australia dropped from 10th to 11th place. The US ranked 19th (up one spot from last year, but down from 11th in 2012)—and is an example of how money doesn’t seem to buy happiness. While the US ranked 10th for income, it ranks low in key measures that make a happy nation: 37th for social support, 42nd for corruption, and 61st for freedom, for example.

The report provides evidence of how rising addictions are causing serious unhappiness and are a key factor in the US’ long-term declining wellbeing. The researchers in the press release note: “Addictions come in many forms, from substance abuse to…to digital media. The compulsive pursuit of…addictive behaviors is causing severe unhappiness.” And they note that, “Social connections are weakening in the US as social media usage is raising anxiety, especially among adolescents.”

World Happiness Falls Overall

One worrying trend: what you could call greater global happiness inequality, as the gap between the top and bottom countries is widening. (The unhappiest countries are Afghanistan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Central African Republic.) When population growth is factored in, world happiness has taken a hit in recent years, driven by an ongoing downward trend in India.

And the report shows that, for emotions, there has been a widespread overall negative effect, more worry, sadness and anger in the world, especially marked in Asia and Africa.

Each annual World Happiness Report focuses on new issues. This year’s has special chapters on how crucial generosity and prosocial behavior are. It includes a chapter on the effects of happiness on voting behavior—as well as how big data, and Internet use and addiction, impact happiness. It also is the first time that 180 global cities were ranked for happiness (Helsinki ranks #1)—and it measures urban vs. rural happiness worldwide, revealing that city dwellers are generally happier than rural dwellers, but with this sometimes reversed in a number of richer countries.

Given the mass economic and social disruption that the coronavirus crisis will cause in 2020, one can expect global happiness and national ranking shake-ups next year. But studying the happiest (and less happy) countries before the epidemic hit is an important benchmark and exercise, as the pandemic will expose and test the fault lines in the key measures of happiness at a national level: especially trust in government, social support from friends and family, and generosity. It will be interesting to track just how much more resilient the happier nations may prove when this is finally behind us.


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