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Happiness, Benevolence, and Trust During COVID-19 and Beyond

As the world marks the tenth anniversary of the World Happiness Report, its authors are looking back and forward while maintaining their reporting of current well-being and broadening their analysis of the far-ranging effects of COVID-19. 

Their measurement of subjective well-being relies on three main well-being indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions. Happiness rankings are based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives. In this year’s report, the authors are paying special attention to specific daily emotions to better track how COVID-19 has altered different aspects of life.

They are looking back at the evolution of life evaluations, and a number of emotions since the Gallup World Poll data first became available in 2005-2006. Using a wider range of emotional and other supports for life evaluations, they can distinguish a greater variety of global and regional trends. The authors have also used individual-level data from 2017 through 2021 to examine how life under COVID-19 has changed for people in different circumstances.

Overall levels of life evaluations have been fairly stable during the two years of COVID-19, matched by modest changes in the global rankings. Finland remains in the top position as the happiest in the world for the fifth year running, followed by Denmark in 2nd and all five Nordic countries among the top eight countries, joined by Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. France reached its highest ranking to date, at 20th, while Canada slipped to its lowest ranking ever, at 15th, just behind Germany at 14th, followed closely by the United States and the United Kingdom at 16th and 17th.

The central finding continues to be the extent to which the quality of the social context, especially the extent to which people trust their governments and have trust in the benevolence of others, supports their happiness before, during, and after the pandemic. Countries where people trusted their governments and each other experienced lower COVID-19 death tolls, which set the stage for maintaining or rebuilding a sense of common purpose to deliver happier, healthier, and more sustainable lives.

Well-being inequality has generally grown since 2011, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia. Positive emotions have generally been twice as prevalent as negative ones. Over the past ten years, that gap has been narrowing, with enjoyment and laughter on a negative trend in most regions and worry and sadness on rising trends. Anger has remained low and stable on the global average, with large increases in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa offset by trend declines elsewhere.

Trust and benevolence have, if anything, become more important. Higher institutional trust continues to be linked to lower death rates from COVID-19 to a greater extent in 2021 than in 2020. The report’s three measures of prosocial behavior – donations, volunteering, and helping strangers showed increases in 2021 in every global region, often at remarkable rates not seen for other variables that were tracked before and during the pandemic.

Global benevolence increased remarkably in 2021, up by almost 25% of its pre-pandemic level, led by the helping of strangers, but with strong growth in donations and volunteering. The COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020 has led to a 2021 pandemic of benevolence with equally global spread. We should all hope that the pandemic of benevolence will live far beyond COVID-19. If sustainable, this outpouring of kindness will provide grounds for hope and optimism in a world needing more of both.

John Helliwell on the World Happiness Report 2022
Jeffrey Sachs and Luis Gallardo talk about the State of World Happiness

Keep Reading about the World Happiness Report 2022 findings. Trends in Conceptions of Progress and Well-being

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