What does it mean to be happy?
The answer can differ from person to person: being surrounded by friends and family, doing meaningful work, listening to music that speaks to you — the list is endless.
But while we tend to think of happiness as something we experience individually and is studied by psychologists, there’s a growing body of knowledge studying happiness as a determinant of economic outcomes. It looks at the role of happiness in labor markets and, more generally, in the economy.
The Science of Happiness
One way happiness has been studied this way is the annual World Happiness Report, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It measures well-being to rank the quality of life in countries across the globe, and how this affects economic development.
In its ninth year, the 2021 report is unique in that it tackles how the COVID-19 pandemic has “shaken, taken, and reshaped lives everywhere.” After all, just as the unprecedented health crisis transformed our everyday lives, the pandemic — along with the ways governments across the globe are dealing with it — also plays a major role in our happiness.
The report uses data obtained from the Gallup World Poll and the World Risk Poll, as well as the ICL-YouGov Behaviour Tracker. From there, it ranks countries based on six categories, namely: GDP per capita, social support, freedom to make one’s own life choices, healthy life expectancy, perceptions of internal and external corruption levels, and the generosity of the general population.
For the World Happiness Report, then, happiness is understood as something we feel when earning well, having someone to count on, knowing you can make key life decisions for yourself, being healthy, trusting a good government, and being surrounded by kindness.
The World’s Happiest Nations
The happiest nations cited by the World Happiness Report are countries from Northern Europe. Here are some highlights from each country’s reported life evaluation score between 2018 and 2020, cited in parentheses, and the factors it may be attributed to.
- Finland (7.842/10): The Finns felt strongly about being free to make their own choices, with minimal suspicion of government corruption. They also showed strong feelings of communal support, and mutual trust in navigating the challenges of COVID-19 as a nation. The country also holds the unique distinction of occupying the #1 spot for the fourth year in a row.
- Denmark (7.620/10): The Danes, meanwhile, outscored Finland in categories like GDP per capita, generosity, and perceived lack of corruption.
- Switzerland (7.571/10): With their strong sense of community, the Swiss have a firm belief that theirs is a safe and clean country. They also scored pretty high on healthy life expectancy, and enjoy a high median salary, with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world.
- Iceland (7.554/10): Icelanders had the highest scores for social support (with Finland, Norway, and Denmark tied for second place). It also has the second-highest generosity score among the top nations.
- Netherlands (7.464/10): Also enjoying a lack of perceived corruption, the Dutch scored higher in the perceived generosity category than any other nations in the top seven.
- Norway (7.392/10): The Norwegians enjoy a pretty good work-life balance, low crime rate, universal healthcare, and free college tuition — all of which contributes to a strong sense of community and overall happiness.
- Sweden (7.363/10): The Swedes rank high in all categories, especially with regard to perceived lack of corruption, GDP per capita, and healthy life expectancy.
The World’s Least Happy Nations
The bottom five slots on the report’s rankings are occupied by Lesotho (3.512/10) Botswana (3.467/10), Rwanda (3.415/10), Zimbabwe (3.145/10), and finally, Afghanistan (2.523/10).
This is the second year in a row that Afghanistan has found itself at the bottom of the list, and because the 2021 report was released before the Taliban takeover in August last year, it is likely that it will fare similarly in the next report.
A Quick Background
Here, I must mention that all five of these low-ranking countries were victims of colonization. Zimbabwe and Lesotho were British colonies, while Botswana was a British protectorate. Meanwhile, Rwanda was occupied by both Germany and Belgium. Afghanistan was occupied by the United States for 20 years, before falling to the Taliban last year.
With respect to the agency of formerly colonized peoples, this history can’t be overlooked. Colonization, after all, is a process of “wholesale destruction,” which sounds, to me, like the opposite of happiness. It is the loss of memory, land, identity, possibilities, and so much more, setting countries back hundreds of years in terms of development.
And though colonialism has formally ended, its legacy is alive and well — affecting current liberties, ways of life, and, crucially, happiness in the Global South.
The other side of this history, in the case of the happiest nations, shouldn’t be forgotten either, even though their histories are largely overshadowed by other colonizers like Britain. The Dutch, for example, were some of Europe’s earliest empire-builders, predating even Spain and Portugal. Even those who never officially colonized other nations, like Norway and Switzerland, benefited from the imperialism of their neighbors and allies, too.
Interestingly, the 2020 report also traces the success of Scandinavian countries, which frequently occupy the top spots of the annual report, to their histories as relatively egalitarian nations.
According to the study, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland didn’t have the feudalism and serfdom espoused by the surrounding region at the start of the modern era. This meant that they opened the 20th century without the deep class divides and economic inequality that characterized most other countries at the time.
What Can We Learn From Them?
Aside from the varied ways colonial violence and inequality continues to shape our world, there’s much more to be learned from the emerging science of happiness in the World Happiness Report.
The Value of Trust
Around the world, a rise in COVID-19 cases means a lower level of happiness. And that makes sense: More cases mean more suffering, both for the sick and those wary of getting sick. But what makes a huge difference in the face of rising COVID-19 cases is trust in public institutions.
The bad news is, trust in governments around the world has been plummeting in recent years, and has helped fuel the rise of COVID-19 myths. Trust tends to be lower in nations with greater income inequality, too.
Greater corruption and a lack of transparency over pandemic funds tend to translate to poor support for essential healthcare services. In turn, this leads to more COVID-19 cases and higher mortality rates, which, in the end, also affect happiness.
Among the world’s happiest nations, however, trust has helped in boosting overall wellbeing. Because governments in the top countries have earned and maintained people’s trust in their COVID-19 response, they’re more able to keep death rates low and social cohesion high. Thus, the world’s happiest nations tend to have greater public trust and more success at fighting the pandemic.
The Link Between Happiness and Health
The 2021 World Happiness Report adds to a body of research highlighting the link between health and happiness. The world’s happiest nations tend to have higher life expectancies and lower mortality rates, and there are strong support systems for those dealing with addiction — whether it’s to alcohol, gambling, and smoking, or even shopping and social media.
The science connecting all this is vast. Screen addiction has been linked to lower levels of wellbeing, and diseases that disrupt daily life decrease happiness. Conversely, a healthy diet can boost psychosocial wellbeing among kids, and when paired with regular exercise, can lead to happiness among adults.
The relationship goes the other way around, too. Happy people tend to have healthier lifestyles and avoid sickness, pain, and frailty. In the long term, studies suggest that it can also help prevent dementia.
Giving Is Good
Describing life under COVID-19, the 2021 World Happiness Report points out that aside from the massive loss of life, the stress among the living has been especially worrisome. This is due to greater economic insecurity and disruption of just about every aspect of life.
And under this type of stress, it’s understandable if people would rather prioritize themselves and their own happiness.
However, the report reveals that COVID-19 has increased the effect of generosity on our happiness and wellbeing. Whether it’s through volunteering, giving donations, or paying higher taxes, giving back makes people happy.
This echoes a 2017 study that found that givers tend to be happier than those who act out of self-interest — even when they have little to give.
Promoting Work-Life Balance
Although income is a factor studied by the report via GDP per capita, a key part of happiness is not having to work all the time in order to live.
For instance, the top five cities in terms of work-life balance — namely, Helsinki, Oslo, Zurich, Stockholm, and Copenhagen — are all located in the top-ranking countries for happiness.
In contrast, countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have a higher GDP per capita than some of the happiest nations, are the most overworked. They rank 32 and 77 on the World Happiness Report, respectively.
Wealthy Does Not Mean Happy
Going back to the point on income, Finland, the world’s happiest nation, actually ranks 25th in terms of GDP per capita.
This supports the popular adage about money not leading to happiness. Sure, maybe it can get you therapy and lessen your stress about where your next meal is coming from. But how a nation is run using the money it has — along with the trust its people can give to their leaders — tends to have a lot more power over how happy we can be.
For instance, a US-based study found that we tend to be happier in states that spend on public libraries, parks, highways, and natural resources. Similarly, a Korean study found a link between urban green spaces and happiness.
The Bottom Line
Many of the things that make us happy are interrelated and, according to the report, have a role to play in helping nations weather the pandemic.
“The top countries already had higher levels of trust and lower levels of inequality,” the report reads, “both of which helped them to keep death rates low and social cohesion high.”
The researchers also found that the mechanics of the six factors studied — income, health, someone to count on, the freedom to choose for oneself, generosity, and trust in public institutions — have not changed much despite COVID-19 transforming our daily lives.
And in some ways, that’s a little scary. Because outside of building a good support network and trying to be healthy, many of the things studied in the report aren’t usually within our control, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
There are so many articles out there trying to tell people how to live like a Scandinavian and discover their secrets to health and happiness (remember the Year of the Hygge?). But ultimately, what the study suggests is that happiness is less about the new Nordic things we can do differently in our own lives, and more about the abstract and less sexy things we need, like a trustworthy government, universal healthcare, healthy work culture, and the freedom to chart your own life.
The trouble is, those aren’t things we can get very easily.