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A happiness report overshadowed by COVID

Today, the World Happiness Report 2020 was published on March 20th, which is the International Day of Happiness. However, it does not take a happiness researcher to recognize that it is a strange time to talk about happiness. The day when the World Happiness Report normally hits the global news agenda is overshadowed by a very unusual event: a global pandemic crisis.


Apart from the usual country ranking, which ranks 156 countries by how satisfied citizens are with their lives, this year’s edition focuses on social and natural environments to determine how the environment we live in affects our personal happiness.

Places of Happiness: Finland - The hat-trick achiever of global happiness  

Finland ranks number one in the global happiness rankings for the third year in a row. Denmark comes in second and Switzerland ranks in third place. All previous winners from previous years are still in the top five. This continues a longstanding trend of Scandinavian and European countries ranking among the happiest in the world. They rank highly in all six fundamental factors used in the report to explain happiness differences between countries: healthy life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, perceived levels of corruption, generosity and a sense of freedom to make key life decisions.

In Figure 1, you can see the happiness trend over time (2008-2020). You can select all participating countries and compare them with each other.

Figure 1: Interactive country happiness trends (click here to access the interactive tool)

2020 Happy Cities Ranking

Apart from a country ranking, the 2020 edition of the World Happiness Report also addresses another hot topic in happiness research: the happiness difference between urban and rural areas. The report finds that city dwellers are on average happier than those in rural areas, especially in less developed countries. Among the most developed countries, this is often reversed. In the former case, more economic opportunity in urban areas typically out weights the negative side effects of city life. However, in more developed countries, the report finds that high costs of living, weaker communities, and more people living alone drive can down average happiness levels in cities as compared to rural areas. 

The report also includes a happiness ranking of global cities (Figure 2). This ranking differs from other popular city rankings as it based on citizens’ subjective assessments of quality of life instead of objective indicators. Helsinki, the capital of Finland ranks first while Aarhus, a major Danish city ranks second, and Wellington, the capital of New Zealand ranks third. Similar to what we see in the country rankings, the happiest cities are typically in countries where citizens report high levels of subjective wellbeing.

Figure 2: World's happiest cities

Trust and social networks can act as a buffer in times of crisis

Apart from the urban-rural divide, the report also looks at which factors of our immediate surroundings can affect our personal happiness. One key finding is that people who live in communities and societies with less happiness inequality and higher levels of interpersonal and institutional trust report higher levels of wellbeing. People in high trust communities are much more resilient in the face of hard times: illness, discrimination, fear of danger, unemployment, and low income. Being able to count on those around us and on our institutions seems to make hardships easier to bear, especially for those who may be worse off than others. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: The buffering effect of high social capital on personal happiness

This insight is also very helpful in understanding the effect of strong communities in difficult times.  The global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic poses great risks to well-being, especially health and income. Earlier studies of earthquakes, floods, storms, tsunamis, and even economic crises, have found that citizens in high trust societies are better equipped to find co-operative ways to work together to repair the damage and rebuild better lives.[1] This has sometimes led to surprising increases in happiness in the wake of what might otherwise seem to be unmitigated disasters. The most frequent explanation seems to be that people are pleasantly surprised by the willingness of their neighbors and institutions to work together to help each other. This delivers a heightened sense of belonging and pride, which can sometimes even be great enough to compensate for the material losses. But where the social fabric is not strong enough to support co-operative action, then fear, disappointment and anger can add to the costs of a disaster.

“In the moment, only distance is an expression of care.” Angela Merkel

As we are facing this global challenge, it is crucial for us to help each other. Helping people in need and offering our assistance to the community makes a big impact both for the person who receives the help and for the one who provides it. As this report shows, those communities and societies where citizens help the elderly with their groceries, take care of children whose parents need to work, or distance themselves in an expression of care, are in a better position to weather this storm. Even though social support – as shown in the report – is one primary factor of happiness, it does not have to be physical. Luckily, the 21st century has enabled us to obtain social contact through other means. Social distance does not mean social isolation. In the coming months, it will be more important than ever to reach out to those we care about in whatever way we can.

Social support through social media

Although social media can have both positive and negative effects on personal happiness depending on how it is used (see full report) [2], in these difficult times it can be put to good use. Social media can offer crucial opportunities to maintain and strengthen social bonds. When it is used to connect to grandmothers, grandfathers, family or friends through video chat or audio messages, social media can support and even significantly increase wellbeing.


[1] Aldrich, D. P., & Meyer, M. A. (2015). Social capital and community resilience. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(2), 254-269.

[2] Brikjær, M., & Kaats, M. (2019). Does social media really pose a threat to young people’s well-being?. The Happiness Research Institute.

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