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Happiness in an Unhappy World

For people everywhere around the world, the past year and a half has been a hard one. So hard that many people increasingly started reporting their feelings of depression and anxiety. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Due to the global pandemic of coronavirus disease and subsequent social isolation, millions of people worldwide had a tough time.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s worst effect has undoubtedly been the two million deaths in 2020 (and counting). This is a serious rise in the annual number of deaths worldwide and a substantial social welfare loss. On the other hand, those who survived had to face greater economic insecurity, disruption of their lives, as well as stress, and physical and mental health challenges.

However, according to the World Happiness Report, self-reported life satisfaction has remained steady throughout 2020, which is an outstanding finding. The report displays worldwide happiness at an average score of 5.5, which is a marginal improvement since their 2019 report. This shows that people still hope for the best outcome despite the challenges, threats of new variants, and uneven policy decisions. The vaccines are changing the game, and many are still adhering to mask mandates and physical distancing. This also shows that human’s will to be happy and prosperous despite all challenges is unbreakable.

The World Happiness Report 2020/2021

Every year, the World Happiness Report compiles data from the previous three years of surveys, but the previous year, due to the coronavirus, they’ve also included a report solely for 2020. The goal was to answer a fundamental question, “Why are there different COVID-19 death rates worldwide?” since death rates were much higher in the Americas and Europe than in Africa, East Asia, and Australasia. Some of the factors used to help account for the variation between countries were the age of the population, proximity to other infected countries, people’s trust in each other, cultural differences, and trust in public institutions.

As mentioned, mental health has been one of the casualties of the pandemic, as well as the workforce’s well-being. People have lost their jobs, their possessions, and even their houses. The report has displayed a 12% drop in overall life satisfaction and even 40% for those who felt lonely before the lockdown.

However, the World Happiness Report also displayed people’s incredible resilience in the face of coronavirus. While moods and emotions changed as the pandemic set in, people’s long-term satisfaction with life was less affected. The results were not surprising – European countries occupy nine out of ten first spots on the list of the world’s happiest countries.

According to the report, the ten happiest countries globally for the year 2021 are generally those found on the previous lists: Finland is first, Denmark second, and Switzerland third. They are followed by Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Austria, and Luxembourg. But, what about those countries that are at the far end of the list?

The World Happiness Report also looked at the countries where people feel most unhappy. Unfortunately, there were no surprises in this category, as well. This year, countries like India, Yemen, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, Botswana, Lesotho, Tanzania, and war-torn Afghanistan were ranked as some of the most unhappy places in the world.

Naturally, this shows that it takes more than having enough money to fulfill your wants and needs to be happy. Happiness levels depend more on being safe and healthy, social support, and personal freedom than on financial security. 

The unhappy countries have a lot to deal with. For instance, Zimbabwe has been through natural and financial disasters, with devastating hyperinflation accompanied by the sharp rise in food prices. In Jordan, the tourism industry contributes to nearly 20% of their GDP, but coronavirus has caused a severe and prolonged decline in the industry. Afghanistan fights with its conflicts and violence, while Ukraine’s conflicts continue to plague the country, causing stress on their politics, economy, and security.

The World Happiness Report is a Sustainable Development Solutions Network publication powered by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation data and the Gallup World Poll. Gallup has been tracking the world’s emotional health for the past sixteen years and publishing their results as the Global Emotions Report since 2015. Every year, Gallup tries to quantify at the country level whether people are enjoying their lives and learning new things and whether they feel well-rested, or if they feel sadness, extreme stress, worry, or physical pain.

According to their findings, in 2020, the world was an angrier, more worried, sadder, and more stress-out place than it has ever been in the past fifteen years. 70% of people have reported that they’ve smiled or laughed a lot the previous day, which is a five-point drop from 2019. 40% of adults worldwide also noted they had experienced a lot of stress the previous day, which is a record high for Gallup findings.

It’s not hard to understand why we have these results. Social isolation and millions of people sickened and dying of COVID-19 is the general reason. However, the happiness report, as mentioned, hasn’t shifted too much from the previous year – at least not in the countries at the top of the happiness list. This shows that those countries that invest in their citizen’s wellbeing and provide a wide range of social support did better when it came to helping their people weather the pandemic.

Conversely, countries with high levels of income inequality and low state capacity to respond to the pandemic have performed significantly worse when dealing with the pandemic, both in term cases and deaths. This shows the importance of closing the gap in income inequality (and any other inequality!) and the urgent need for improving the quality of life in such countries.

The Global Peace Index

The 15th edition of the Global Peace Index supports the mentioned findings of the reports mentioned above. Produced and performed by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the Global Peace Index measures the peacefulness of countries made up of 23 indicators weighted on a scale from 1 to 5. The lower the score, the more peaceful the country.

According to their findings, global peacefulness has deteriorated again for the ninth year in a row, this year by 0.07%. Europe remains the most peaceful region globally, while the Middle East and North Africa regions are still the least peaceful parts of our world.

The COVID-19 pandemic had its share of impact on the world’s peace. The levels of conflict, violence and civil unrest rose in the previous year, fuelled mainly by responses to COVID-19 restrictions. Over five thousand pandemic-related violent events were recorded between January 2020 and April 2021!

These findings remind me of the famous Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This applies to countries too. Those countries that strive to create better-living conditions for their citizens have better results. They simply are happier. So, for the world to be a peaceful and happy place, several prerequisites are a must. To quote the World Happiness Report, these prerequisites are good income, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, trust, and generosity.

Read Part 2 of the series – Happy & Unhappy


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