We have now passed the one-year anniversary of a global pandemic that has killed over 2.5 million people, and continues to devastate families, upend governments, crush economies, and tear through the social sector. While the newly released World Happiness report addresses well-being during COVID-19, it is important to take a reflective look at the state of global happiness pre-pandemic. The UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report offers insightful evidence on what makes people happier and ranks 156 countries using the Gallup World Poll data and six indicators: GDP, social support, life expectancy, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.
Last year, Finland topped the happiness rankings for the third year in a row, while Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway filled the next four positions. At the opposite pole, Afghanistan was named the unhappiest place in the world, followed by South Sudan and Zimbabwe. For the first time, the 2020 report also ranked the happiest cities around the world. The top 10 is dominated by Scandinavian cities, with Finland’s capital of Helsinki ranking as the happiest city in the world. The unhappiest cities are predominantly located in low-income countries and have either experienced (civil) war (Kabul in Afghanistan, Sanaa in Yemen, Juba in South Sudan, Bangui in the Central African Republic), armed conflict (Gaza in Palestine), political instability (Cairo in Egypt) or devastating natural catastrophes (Port-au-Prince in Haiti).
The 2020 report also brings into light how inequality and social environments fare in people’s happiness. In a released statement, professor John F. Helliwell, co-editor of the report said: “A happy social environment, whether urban or rural, is one where people feel a sense of belonging, where they trust and enjoy each other and their shared institutions”. Higher levels of interpersonal and institutional trust also play an important role in raising happiness by increasing the resilience of individual wellbeing to various types of adversity, such as perceived discrimination, ill-health, unemployment, low income, and fear when walking the streets at night.
In times like this, seeking insight from the most content countries can help drive better policy responses to the crisis and help shape our post-COVID-19 world. The report reveals that the main secret to Nordic happiness lies in the quality of their institutions, such as reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption, and well-functioning democracy and state institutions. These results competent the existing body of evidence which shows that taxes and public transfers help reduce poverty and inequality, thereby strengthening the economy and fostering social well-being.
The findings are also in tune with Development Pathways’ mission to highlight the critical role of social protection during shocks like COVID-19 and beyond. Following the lead of the world’s happiest countries, building inclusive social protection systems can be the long-sought answer to lower inequality, promote trust in governments and foster social cohesion and, in turn, act both as a protective buffer against adversity and as a means of achieving better lives.