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9 of the 10 happiest countries in the world are in Europe

European Council President Charles Michel waves in front of an EU flag.
John Thys/Reuters
A friendly face.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

An annual study of happiness around the world found that positive emotions and overall levels of satisfaction with life remained surprisingly stable across the globe, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers suggest it bodes well for humanity’s resilience.

And yet happiness levels are higher on some continents than others.

European nations once again dominated the list of the happiest places to be in the World Happiness Report, with Finland toping the list for both 2020 and the 2018-2020 three-year average. But Finnish bragging rights over neighboring nations should be tempered. The scores at the top of the rankings for 2020 alone were close enough to not be statistically significant, the researchers note.

The report, issued by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is the final product of independent researchers based all over the globe. The team bases its findings largely on the results of the annual Gallup World Poll, which typically conducts interviews with people living in 149 countries. (Because of the pandemic, the survey could only get to roughly 100 countries this year.)

Trust in government correlates with increased happiness

To calculate overall happiness, the Gallup World Poll asks participants to evaluate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10—10 being the happiest—based on six separate factors: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, generosity, freedom, and perceptions of corruption.

Northern Europeans’ high levels of reported happiness likely comes from the stability in their countries and their trust in government, even during a pandemic. “People feel secure in those countries, so trust is high,” Jeffrey Sachs an economist at Columbia University and one of the reports’ co-authors, told the Associated Press. “The government is seen to be credible and honest, and trust in each other is high.”

Countries at the bottom of the scale disproportionately represented Africa and the Middle East. Those places tended to fare worse because of their lower levels of GDP per capita, social support, and life expectancies.

The absence of stress about employment, finances, food, and health are some of the things that contribute to happiness—which is more of a result all-around contentment rather than a fleeting feeling, Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of the book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, told Quartz previously. The countries that dominated the list in 2020 had also been top contenders in previous years, likely due to relatively stable living conditions there.

Finding moments of joy, even in a pandemic

Researchers did see an increase in the amount of negative emotions people reported day to day. More people reported feeling more worry, sadness, or anger within the past 24 hours than they had in previous years.

But the number of positive emotions people reported still outweighed negative emotions by about two to one.

To assess these kinds of feelings, pollsters asked responders if they had smiled or laughed the day previously. While people in 25 countries reported fewer of these positive encounters overall, people in 22 countries reported more, and the rest were relatively similar to previous years.

“Given how all lives have been so importantly disrupted, it is remarkable that the averages are so stable,” the report states.  This shows that even during some of the most unpredictable, destabilizing circumstances, instances of joy—like cracking a joke, taking in a sunrise, or enjoying a meal with loved ones—can still be found and appreciated.

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