There’s no doubt the pandemic brought darkness, and in times of crisis, we tend to focus on the negative. But there are silver linings, too, that can provide optimism, promote resilience and increase our ability to adapt to future challenges.
World Happiness Report
WHR is a global survey distributed to people who live in more than 150 countries worldwide. It’s a publication of the United Nations, but it is funded by a number of foundations and written by a group of independent experts. This year is their 10th anniversary and 9th publication. The purpose of the report is to evaluate how people feel across the globe, including trends over time.
From year to year, overall trends don’t tend to change much. But, as you can imagine, the pandemic significantly disrupted how people feel. This report included specific data from the pandemic. It’s 6 chapters long and worth the read, but there were a few findings in particular worth highlighting.
Happiest place on earth
The WHR is most famous for ranking the “happiest place in the world.” They measure this by asking thousands and thousands of people across the world to answer one question:
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
They’ve correlated this across several measures like social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, GDP per capita, perceptions of corruption, and positive and negative emotions.
For the fifth year in a row, Finland is the happiest country in the world. (No surprise given their social system that buffers shocks, like a pandemic.) Interestingly, the U.S. improved their rank during the pandemic—moving from 19th to 16th happiest country in the world. The overall suboptimal ranking is due to a number of factors, including low institutional trust and income inequality. The ten countries with the largest gains in happiness since 2008 were, in order, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Togo, Bahrain, Latvia, Benin, Guinea and Armenia.
Positive and negative emotions
As in years past, the WHR follows a metric called “life evaluations.” This is measured by calculating the net balance between positive and negative emotions. This is then averaged globally and by country.
During the pandemic, overall positive emotions (measured by enjoyment, laughter, and learning/doing something interesting) continued to be more than twice as frequent as negative emotions (sadness, anger, worry). The WHR reported the global average of positive emotions was 0.66 (i.e., the average respondent experienced 2 of the 3 positive emotions the previous day) compared to the global average of 0.29 for negative emotions.
However, in 2020, negative emotions (sadness, worry, and anger) increased and were 8% higher than their pre-pandemic baseline. This was driven by an increase in sadness and worry; it was not driven by anger. In 2021, overall negative emotions fell back to baseline thanks to a significant reduction in stress. Sadness remained stable in 2021.
In 2020/2021, two positive emotions, laughing and enjoyment, slightly decreased, but learning/doing something interesting significantly increased. (Hello, sourdough bread makers.) This led to zero net change in positive emotion.
The balance between positive and negative affects ranged significantly by region. For example, life evaluations increased substantially in Central/Eastern Europe during the pandemic, which continued to close the gap with Western Europe (which saw no change in life evaluation through the pandemic). MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) and South Asia saw considerable decreases in life evaluation. NA & ANZ (North America, Australia, and New Zealand) saw a slight decrease but remained higher than Western Europe.
Global surge of benevolence
While there was an increase in negative emotions this was accompanied by an even larger increase in kindness. Kindness, measured by donations, volunteering, and helping strangers, improved in every region of the globe. In 2020, there was a substantial increase in helping strangers but no meaningful change in donations and volunteering. But by 2021, all three types of kindness had increased an average of 25% from baseline. Helping strangers increased the most throughout the pandemic.
As seen in the figure below, other happiness-supporting factors took a positive u-turn due to the pandemic. For example, many regions like Europe and NA/ANZ (North America, Australia, and New Zealand) reported a ridiculous increase in generosity after decreasing for years. In 2021, there was a meaningful decrease in corruption across the globe, too. In Southeast Asia, institutional trust was nosediving before the pandemic, but the pandemic stabilized trust.
While SARS-CoV-2 created the biggest health crisis of the century, a global wave of benevolence follows in its wake. Not just in the early phase of the pandemic, but thereafter. Simply put, in times of crisis people step up. Some acts of kindness are news worthy but millions are boring and unheralded acts in the background: Checking on neighbors, volunteering for clinical trials, sewing masks for coworkers, easing isolation through zoom.
We need to grieve and countries need learn from their pandemic mistakes, but we cannot lose sight of the onslaught of kindness and the number of helpers the pandemic also brought forth. This will enable us to continue to trudge through the pandemic. And maybe, just maybe, we can continue this wake of kindness for years after the pandemic. As Pablo Neruda said, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”
A special shoutout to the authors of WHR Chapter 2: John F. Helliwell Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia; Haifang Huang Professor, Department of Economics, University of Alberta; Shun Wang Professor, KDI School of Public Policy and Management; and Max Norton at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia
“Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE)” is written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH PhD—an epidemiologist, biostatistician, professor, researcher, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day she has a research lab and teaches graduate-level courses, but at night she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health science so that people will be well equipped to make evidence-based decisions. This newsletter is free thanks to the generous support of fellow YLE community members. To support the effort, please subscribe here: