To say the past year has been a difficult one for people across the globe is something of an understatement.
Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the deaths of over 2.6 million people worldwide, it’s also led to a massive shake up in everyday life for many of us.
But despite the devastating events of the last 12 months and the resulting decline in mental health in a number of destinations, there’s been no change at the top spot when it comes to ranking the happiest country in the world.
For the fourth year running, Finland has come out on top in the annual list powered by data from the Gallup World Poll, with Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands following in second, third, fourth and fifth position respectively.
“We need urgently to learn from Covid-19,” said report co-editor Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.
“The pandemic reminds us of our global environmental threats, the urgent need to cooperate, and the difficulties of achieving cooperation in each country and globally.”
Movers and shakers
It’s worth noting that the World Happiness Report 2021 has been collated slightly differently this time round due to coronavirus.
Not only were researchers unable to complete face-to-face interviews in a number of countries, they also had to switch things up entirely by focusing on the relationship between wellbeing and Covid-19.
The report has been primarily based on levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption income since it launched in 2012.
Although there have been some changes in the top 10, the rankings were strikingly similar to the previous year for the most part, which is viewed as a positive sign.
“Surprisingly there was not, on average, a decline in wellbeing when measured by people’s own evaluation of their lives,” said the University of British Columbia’s professor John Helliwell, who also contributed to the report.
“One possible explanation is that people see Covid-19 as a common, outside threat affecting everybody and that this has generated a greater sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling.”
Researchers say it’s no surprise that Finland has retained the top position once again, as the Nordic country has always ranked highly when it comes to mutual trust.
Trust is recognized as one of the major factors that helped to protect people during the pandemic, as well as confidence in governments.
For instance, Brazil’s death rate was significantly higher than Singapore’s, a fact the report put partially down to the difference in public trust in the governments of each country.
It also notes that the Americas and Europe had much higher Covid-19 fatalities than East Asia, Australasia, and Africa.
The report suggests that the average age of a country’s population, whether it’s an island, and its proximity to other highly-infected countries were contributing factors in the disparity between death rates globally.
Intriguingly, cultural differences such as whether the head of government was a woman, are also noted as significant considerations when measuring the success of Covid-19 strategies, along with income inequality and knowledge gained from previous epidemics.
“The East Asian experience shows that stringent government policies not only control Covid-19 effectively, but also buffer the negative impact of daily infections on people’s happiness,” said report contributor professor Shun Wang of the Korea Development Institute.
While successful vaccine rollouts in various countries have provided a much-needed boost to many, lockdowns, social distancing, face coverings and travel restrictions are part and parcel of living with the virus, and that’s not even taking the economic implications into account.
Covid impact on wellbeing
As a result, the report found that the decline in mental health was immediate in many countries, including the UK, where the number of mental health problems reported was 47% higher in May 2020 than predicted before Covid-19.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the World Happiness Report 2021 also found that lockdowns and social distancing impacted workforce wellbeing tremendously.
According to the data collected, those unable to work due to furlough or redundancy who said they were lonely at the start of the pandemic became 43% less happy than those who did not feel lonely to begin with.
“My previous research showed how happy workers are 13% more productive,” said professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, another contributor to the report.
“This paper proves that happiness is not driven by pay, and that the social connections and a sense of identity are more important.
“These findings point towards a ‘hybrid’ future of work, with a balance between office life and working from home to maintain social connections while ensuring flexibility for workers.”
Of the 149 countries featured on the report, Afghanistan was ranked the most unhappy once again, followed by Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Botswana.
Those at the bottom of the list were mainly underdeveloped countries where issues such as political and armed conflicts are prevalent, or have been in recent times.
“This has been a very challenging year, but the early data also show some notable signs of resilience in feelings of social connection and life evaluations” says report contributor professor Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University.
World’s happiest countries 2021
9. New Zealand
16. Costa Rica
17. United Kingdom
18. Czech Republic
19. United States
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated some of the ranking order.