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The State of World Happiness in 2020: mixed emotions

2020 has been a year of heightened negative emotion, yet this year’s World Happiness Report shows that overall wellbeing has remained unexpectedly stable.


Published just over one year on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Happiness Report 2021 explores how the events which characterised 2020 have affected subjective wellbeing, and vice versa. This uncertain year has impacted subjective wellbeing globally, however it would be overly simplistic to generalise the negative wellbeing impacts of the pandemic. While feelings of sadness and worry on a daily basis have significantly increased in 2020, on a more general wellbeing level, encouragingly, the data produces a picture of resilience. This year, the World Happiness Report emphasises life under COVID-19; focussing on the effects of the pandemic and how different countries responded to the crisis.

Emotional response to the pandemic

2020 was a tough year and we have all been affected. However, some dimensions of happiness have fared worse than others. In 2020, the pandemic heightened our experience of negative emotions globally, thus taking the greatest toll of all on our affective wellbeing. In comparison to 2017-2019, in 2020 the number of people feeling sad during the previous day was more than 10% greater and the number of people feeling worried was 8% greater. Of all the wellbeing measures, negative emotions have been the most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zooming out

Despite the significant impact of the pandemic on how we feel from one day to the next, in taking a step back to examine wellbeing more generally, we find everyone has been influenced in one way or another by the pandemic, but no two experiences are the same.

Our lives have been disrupted by COVID-19. As a result, many have experienced a deterioration of general wellbeing. In addition to feeling more sad and worried from one day to the next, some groups have also felt the impact of the pandemic on how they feel about their life overall. We can understand this better by understanding what drives our satisfaction with life. A huge part of it is our social connections, something which has been affected differently for every person. As Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, explains:

“Those who live alone and are more dependent on social contact with people outside of their own household have probably, to a much greater degree, experienced loneliness - which happiness research shows to have a negative effect on our wellbeing.”

General wellbeing pervades

That said, other people’s evaluations of their life have remained unaffected by the pandemic, and for some, certain aspects of the pandemic might have improved their general wellbeing - meaning they feel better about how their life is going in 2020, than they have done in previous years.

“Those who live with their family have still had daily contact with other people: they have also worked from home, had more flexibility and have gotten rid of e.g. a commute to work, which is something we know can negatively affect our well-being” - Meik Wiking.

The picture painted by the average life satisfaction data in the World Happiness Report 2021 shows most people are resilient. Despite the increases in sadness and worry globally, the 6 factors which support our general wellbeing (GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption) continue to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the varying degrees to which different groups’ general wellbeing has been impacted. This spectrum illuminates the complexity of wellbeing and that we cannot and should not generalise the wellbeing impacts of the pandemic - on a general wellbeing level, all is not harmed.

Measuring subjective wellbeing holistically

How can you possibly measure something as subjective as happiness?. This is the question most frequently posed to our team. The answer remains the same: happiness is measured in the same as other complex phenomenons, by respecting its complexity and thus examining its specific, nuanced aspects. There is a general consensus amongst the academic community that subjective well being should be broken down into three dimensions: the evaluative, satisfaction with life,, the affective, day-to-day experience of emotions, and the eudaimonic, sense of purpose.

The World Happiness Report relies on three indicators to measure subjective well being: life evaluation, positive emotions and negative emotions. Life evaluation, also known as cognitive wellbeing, asks the respondents how satisfied they are with life overall. Positive and negative emotions, or affective wellbeing, are measured by asking respondents whether they felt specific emotions the previous day. For positive emotions, respondents are asked whether they smiled or laughed a lot yesterday and whether they enjoyed themself during a lot of the day, yesterday. For negative emotions, respondents report whether they felt anxious, sad or angry yesterday. Life evaluations capture quality of life as a whole, and are supported by emotions, thus measuring subjective wellbeing using these indicators provides the authors with a comprehensive picture of happiness.

The editors of this year’s report have, rightly so, not relied on one metric to understand how people are faring under the Covid-19 pandemic. The data from this year’s report reaffirms the necessity to use various metrics in order to avoid generalising the wellbeing impact of Covid-19, because wellbeing is simply too complex. Concluding the state of world happiness in 2020 based entirely on the life satisfaction data would have oversimplified the wellbeing impact of the pandemic, and the negative emotional toll we have all experienced. Similarly, relying solely on the affective wellbeing data would have exaggerated the wellbeing impact of the pandemic.

Certain groups, such as young people and elderly people, are suffering the greatest in the face of the pandemic, which may cause long-lasting consequences for their wellbeing. This is a matter which must be taken seriously, and requires action. However, there are other groups who, despite feeling the impact of the pandemic on their day-to-day feelings, have not suffered an immense impact on their general wellbeing. As we stand now in March 2021, one year on from the start of the pandemic, there is an end to this difficult time on the horizon. We have all been affected, but graciously, the state of world happiness is not depleted - rebuilding happiness after this immeasurably difficult period is within our reach.

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