The 2021 World Happiness Report



Published 2021-04-22 18:01:59
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For the fourth consecutive year, Finland is crown the best country to live in, according to the World Happiness Report. New Zealand is the only non-European country that makes its place within the 10 best countries.

Human beings are endlessly searching to improve their happiness levels to give more meaning to their daily existence. It may be changing jobs, starting a new hobby or moving to a new country - all in our quest to find that elusive happiness factor. This is why we find surveys that simplify what makes up happier, so interesting.

This year the World Happiness Report was even more pertinent, and it produced some surprising results in light of the Covid-19 pandemic that most certainly impacted our 'life satisfaction' levels.

The report was compiled using data from the Wallup World Poll where people were asked to rate their levels of life satisfaction on a scale of one to ten, where ten was designated 'living your best life possible'. The survey is conducted annually and published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and The Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The survey was based on self-reported levels of life satisfaction.

The top 20 country rankings

  1. Finland: This is the fourth year running that Finland has held on to its number one ranking. It is a small country with one of the lowest poverty rates and income disparities among the countries that make up the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). In 2017 the World Economic Forum rated it the safest country and the World Health Organisation, in 2016, rated it as having the cleanest air. It has high levels of labour market protection with numerous social safety nets in place. This remarkable Nordic country is led by a female Prime Minister who has steered Finland safely during the turbulent times of the pandemic (see also analysis from the CEO magazine).
  2. Denmark: It finds itself firmly in this top position because the population, in general, have a very strong sense of common responsibility towards social welfare and equality. Although citizens are taxed very heavily, healthcare and tertiary education is free. Childcare is subsidised and the elderly are awarded generous pensions and care aides visit them at home. Danes feel very much in control of their lives therefore their life satisfaction scores are higher than in other countries.
  3. Switzerland
  4. Iceland
  5. Netherlands
  6. Norway
  7. Sweden
  8. Luxembourg
  9. New Zealand
  10. Austria
  11. Australia
  12. Israel
  13. Germany
  14. Canada
  15. Ireland
  16. Costa Rica
  17. United Kingdom
  18. Czech Republic
  19. United States
  20. Belgium.

The authors of the report were surprised to see no remarkable changes compared to previous years’ results despite the effects of Covid-19. Finland continued to dominate the list. The US dropped only one level in the rankings overall. This can be explained by the general level of optimism for the future shown by US respondents.

A few Asian countries improved their rankings since last year. China moved up a few spots from 94th to 84th in the rankings. This upward trend of the Asian countries can be explained in part by the experience authorities in these countries have at being better prepared for outbreaks, considering they previously had epidemics like H1N1, MERS and dengue fever.

Croatia made a massive leap from being 61 on the list to number 23. The report concludes that authorities implemented policies to allow citizens to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic while other countries enforced no work for non-essential workers.

Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report’s editors from Columbia University noted that despite the various hardships brought about by Covid-19, people were still generally optimistic and had high levels of life satisfaction. The high ratings in life satisfaction was also about people becoming very adaptive under the new circumstances.

Some of the countries that ranked lower in the survey were Afghanistan, Rwanda, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Ecuador and the Philippines saw greater unhappiness than previous years. The United Kingdom dropped from number 13 to 18, and the UAE declined from number 19 to number 27.

What was the aim of the survey?

Governments worldwide were compelled to respond to staggering healthcare and economic crises, almost overnight with little-to-no preparation or warning. The world has just passed 3 million Covid-related deaths, unparallelled unemployment and economic hardships, setting in stone permanently a very dark chapter in our history.

In those circumstances, the survey was aimed to primarily investigate how the pandemic affected the quality and general routine of life of the respondents, and also to appraise the response of the various governments to this massive health and economic crisis. 

The results of the survey

Usually the report compiles data from the previous 3 years. However, because of the pandemic, the authors thought it was interesting this year to also focus on the year 2020 only. However, they did not notice significant differences: Although countries experienced a general downturn from previous years, on average respondents did not significantly change their responses which led to most high ranking countries maintaining their positions on the world rankings.

  1. People showed greater variance in emotions with a lot more reporting very negative emotions, like anxiety and depression, than previous surveys. This coincided heavily with whether the country of residence was in lockdown or not. However, even though anxiety and sadness increased in the short-term, these levels recovered faster to normal levels.
  2. People ranked trust and support higher in importance during the pandemic than factors like income, good health and unemployment. 
  3. Public trust in governments to take the correct decisions to contain the virus and keep residents safe was an important factor that arose from the survey. Countries that responded to the pandemic faster were able to minimise infections, limit deaths and revert to normal economic functions faster than countries that did not. People who trusted their governments were also more likely to stick to Covid-related rules and restrictions. 
  4. Income and gender equality also played a big role in determining public trust. For example, better income equality and having more women in higher government positions contributes to the high ranking of Denmark.
  5. Countries like New Zealand and Australia both fared very well in the happiness survey and in the Covid crisis because citizens were compliant and placed high value on their personal freedoms.
  6. East Asian countries like South Korea, were prepared to act in the pandemic because of past experience with other viruses like MERS and they were quick to implement their three-step protocol to test, track and isolate.
  7. The pandemic and the subsequent increase in unemployment decreased the life satisfaction of respondents compared to previous years. This was especially true for younger people rather than the older population who were generally more optimistic about future economic growth. Countries that introduced more protections for their labour markets fared much better in the survey than countries that had no or very little worker protections.
  8. Social support (the ability to count on others) was found to offer protection against the negative impact of unemployment.  

Resilience of the human spirit featured prominently in this report. The expectation was for people to generally rate their life satisfaction substantially lower than previous years because of the far-reaching consequences of Covid-19. However, the happiness ratings did not reflect this.  This report can serve as a helpful roadmap for some countries that did not fare well in the survey to improve the lives of their citizens.


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