Looking at global happiness rankings for the intra-pandemic years of 2020-2022, there is distinct evidence of human resilience but three Nordic countries come out top. Jenny Southan reports

This year’s World Happiness Report shows that despite several overlapping crises, most populations around the world continue to be remarkably resilient, with global life satisfaction averages in the Covid-19 years of 2020-2022 just as high as those in the pre-pandemic years.

“Average happiness and our country rankings, for emotions as well as life evaluations, have been remarkably stable during the three Covid-19 years,” says co-author John Helliwell, from the Vancouver School of Economics. “Changes in rankings that have taken place have been continuations of longer-term trends, such as the increases seen in the rankings of the three Baltic countries. Even during these difficult years, positive emotions have remained twice as prevalent as negative ones, and feelings of positive social support twice as strong as those of loneliness.”

Finland remains in the top position for the sixth year in a row. Lithuania is the only new country in the top twenty, up more than 30 places since 2017. War-torn Afghanistan and Lebanon remain the two unhappiest countries.

Since the publication of the first World Happiness Report in 2012, there is a growing consensus that happiness can be promoted through public policies and the actions of business and civil society. Moreover, happiness and wellbeing can be usefully measured in a number of ways, including through surveys of people’s satisfaction with their lives.

The World Happiness Report research leverages six key factors to help explain variation in self-reported levels of happiness across the world: social support, income, health, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption. Governments are increasingly using this analysis to orient policies towards happiness.

“The ultimate goal of politics and ethics should be human well-being,” says co-author Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. “The happiness movement shows that well-being is not a ‘soft’ and ‘vague’ idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues, and good citizenship. We need to turn this wisdom into practical results to achieve more peace, prosperity, trust, civility – and yes, happiness – in our societies.”

Ten happiest countries in the world 2023

(Ranking of happiness based on a three-year-average 2020-2022)

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Israel
  5. Netherlands
  6. Sweden
  7. Norway
  8. Switzerland
  9. Luxembourg
  10. New Zealand

Ten least happy countries in the world

(Ranking of happiness based on a three-year-average 2020-2022)

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Lebanon
  3. Sierra Leone
  4. Zimbabwe
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Botswana
  7. Malawi
  8. Comoros
  9. Tanzania
  10. Zambia

The report takes a closer look at the trends of how happiness is distributed, in many cases unequally, among people. It examines the happiness gap between the top and the bottom halves of the population. This gap is small in countries where almost everyone is very unhappy, and in the top countries where almost no one is unhappy. More generally, people are happier living in countries where the happiness gap is smaller. Happiness gaps globally have been fairly stable, although there are growing gaps in many African countries.

“This year’s report features many interesting insights,” says Lara Aknin, director of the Helping and Happiness Lab of Simon Fraser University. “But one that I find particularly interesting and heartening has to do with pro-sociality. For a second year, we see that various forms of everyday kindness, such as helping a stranger, donating to charity, and volunteering, are above pre-pandemic levels. Acts of kindness have been shown to both lead to and stem from greater happiness.”

Social media data has become a trove of information on how people behave. Since 2010, the methods for using social media data to assess happiness have become much more sophisticated. Assessments can provide timely and spatially detailed well-being measurement to track changes, evaluate policy, and provide accountability. Together, these advances have resulted in both increased measurement accuracy and the potential for more advanced experimental research designs.

This year’s report also takes a closer look at the available survey data from Ukraine. “The devastating impact of the war is evident to all, and so we also find that well-being in Ukraine has taken a real hit”, notes Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford.

“But what is surprising, however, is that well-being in Ukraine fell by less than it did in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, and this is thanks in part to the extraordinary rise in fellow feeling across Ukraine as picked up in data on helping strangers and donations – the Russian invasion has forged Ukraine into a nation” adds De Neve.

“The overall goal is a happier society,” says Richard Layard. “But we only get there if people make each other happy (and not just themselves). It’s an inspiring goal for us as individuals. And it includes the happiness of future generations – and our own mental health.”