It claimed 6.7 million lives, locked down entire countries and triggered a global economic slump, but Covid-19 has not affected humankind’s happiness, an international study has found.
Interviews with more than 100,000 people across 137 countries found significantly higher levels of benevolence in all global regions than before the pandemic. And when asked to evaluate their lives on a scale of one to 10, people on average gave scores just as high in the 2020-22 Covid years as in 2017-19.
Things were slightly worse in western countries and slightly better in the rest of the world, but overall “the undoubted pains were offset by increases in the extent to which respondents had been able to discover and share the capacity to care for each other in difficult times,” the 10th World Happiness Report found.
Global measures of “misery” fell and despite higher death tolls among elderly people, those aged over 60 on average reported improvements in their happiness relative to younger groups.
“It’s amazing,” said John Helliwell, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia and a co-editor of the report. “People ended up discovering their neighbours. People were checking in more regularly [with other generations] so that sense of isolation was not as much as you would expect … Even during these difficult years, positive emotions have remained twice as prevalent as negative ones, and feelings of positive social support twice as strong as those of loneliness.”
Acts of everyday kindness that have been shown to boost happiness, such as helping a stranger, donating to charity and volunteering – activities spurred by the needs of lockdowns – are now above pre-pandemic levels.
The study found the happiness effect of “having someone to count on in times of trouble” increased during the pandemic and since 80% of people surveyed said they did have someone to count on, that had a significant effect.
In the overall happiness league table Finland remained top for the sixth successive year and Afghanistan stayed bottom, a position it held before the return of the Taliban in 2021. It is also the fourth consecutive year in which the UK has dropped down the happiness scores.
The country is in 19th place, sandwiched by Lithuania and the Czech Republic in the top 15% of happiest states ahead of France, but behind Germany, the US, Australia, Ireland and all the Nordic countries.
The polling by Gallup evaluates what contributes to people’s life evaluation scores. GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption were found to be the main drivers of happiness. However, some of those most affected by Covid, including homeless people and those who have been institutionalised, were not included in the survey samples.
The study is compiled by economists including Richard Layard, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor. It is perhaps the most high profile of recent attempts to count subjective wellbeing in an attempt to persuade policymakers to give more weight to happiness. In the UK the Office for National Statistics has been measuring happiness for over a decade.
Critics have cautioned that respondents may have different things in mind when they answer the questions than the researchers, making global comparisons difficult. For example, some people in Finland have suggested “contentment” rather than “happiness” might be a better way to describe their state.
Broader critiques of targeting happiness – the agenda behind the study – include warnings it can backfire as people feel disappointed they are not achieving their goal; concern that happiness now at the cost of the environment could mean misery for future generations; and that there can be a conflict between happiness for some and the human rights of others.
Addressing these views, the report’s authors argue “the interests of others and of a sustainable environment are integral to happy lives rather than something that is either additional or in conflict with them”.
The latest league table shows a distinct contrast between the “west” and the “global south”. Fifteen of the top 20 happiest countries are in Europe. They are joined by the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel, although the research was conducted before the latest outbreaks of violence in the Middle Eastern country. Thirteen of the 20 least happy countries were in Africa, alongside Bangladesh, India and Jordan.
The study asks about recent emotions, positive and negative. Positive emotions – laughter, enjoyment and interest – were more than twice as frequent during the pandemic globally than the negative emotions of worry, sadness and anger.
The study also showed the Netherlands was the country where happiness was shared most equally and there was the smallest gap between the happiest and the least happy. People were generally found to be happier living in countries where the happiness gap is smaller, although not in Afghanistan where the happiness gap was almost as small as in the Netherlands but levels of misery were so widespread. The largest happiness gaps were in the African countries Liberia, the Republic of the Congo and Mozambique.
“The ultimate goal of politics and ethics should be human wellbeing,” said Sachs. “The happiness movement shows that wellbeing is not a soft and vague idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues, and good citizenship. We need to turn this wisdom into practical results to achieve more peace, prosperity, trust, civility – and yes, happiness – in our societies.”
Ukraine invasion effect
In Ukraine, recorded benevolence rose to record levels with high scores for donations and the helping of strangers, while falling significantly in Russia. But it was not enough to stem an overall fall in happiness in the invaded country, which was in the bottom half of the league table in 92nd place, based on a three-year average.
“Worry” increased significantly in Ukraine but remained unchanged in Russia, which overall was in 70th place in the happiness rankings.
The study detected a difference in attitude in Ukraine after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion.
“Despite the magnitude of suffering and damage in Ukraine, life evaluations in September 2022 remained higher than in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation, supported by a much stronger sense of common purpose, benevolence and trust in their leadership,” the report said.
“Wellbeing in Ukraine fell by less than it did in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, and this is thanks in part to the extraordinary rise in fellow feeling across Ukraine as picked up in data on helping strangers and donations,” said the co-author Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford.
But in 2022 Ukrainians scored their overall wellbeing at 5.1 out of 10, a dip on 2021. That compares with Russians whose scores rose to 5.7. By contrast the UK scored 6.8 and Finland 7.8.