Where is the happiest country in the world? How can we measure happiness? Is happiness a good way to compare countries? Has the ongoing pandemic affected people’s happiness all over the world? These questions might seem a little complicated to answer, but fortunately for us the World Happiness Report 2021 was released last week! In this episode we’ll talk about the results of their rankings and discuss their findings on global happiness!

World Happiness Report 2021 – https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/

Democracy Rankings – http://thinkinginenglish.blog/2021/03/08/57-is-democracy-dying-freedom-house-2021-report-english-vocabulary-lesson/

Which Country has the most languages? – http://thinkinginenglish.blog/2021/01/13/42-which-country-has-the-most-languages-english-vocabulary-lesson/

What is the most expensive city in the world? – http://thinkinginenglish.blog/2021/01/06/40-what-is-the-most-expensive-city-in-the-world-english-vocabulary-lesson/

(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!)

Vocabulary List 

Corruption (n) – illegal, bad, or dishonest behaviour, especially by people in positions of power

Political corruption is widespread throughout that country 

Obsessed (adj) – unable to stop thinking about something; too interest in or worried about something

Why are people so obsessed with money? 

Evaluation (n) – A judgment or calculation of the quality, importance, amount, or value of something 

Student evaluations of the class will be collected next week

Mutual (adj) – (of two or more people or groups) feeling the same emotion, or doing the same thing to or for each other 

Their partnerships was based on mutual trust, respect, and understanding  

Stringent (adj) – having a very severe effect, or being extremely limiting 

We need to introduce more stringent security measures such as identity cards

To buffer (v) – to provide protection against harm 

People’s concerns were buffered by the government’s strong actions

Morale (n) – the amount of confidence felt by a person or group of people, especially when in a dangerous or difficult situation

A couple of victories would improve the team’s morale enormously

frequency (n) – the number of times something happens within a particular period

Complaints about the the frequency of buses rose in the last year  

Solidarity (n) – agreement between and support for the members of a group

The purpose of the speech was to show solidarity with the country’s leaders

For some reason, humans around the world love to rank things. You just need to spend 10 minutes on youtube and you’ll find entire channels with millions of subscribers making Top 10 style videos. Our species loves to categorise whatever we can, and then order things from tallest to smallest, most surprising to least surprising, from best to worst and much more. When it comes to countries or places, there are quite a few different ways to create a ranking. A few weeks ago we talked about the results of the most recent Freedom House Democracy Rankings which, as you probably guessed from the name, ranked countries on their level of freedom. You can rank countries on everything from their economic performance and levels of corruption, to the amount of McDonald’s restaurants they have. In  today’s episode, I want to look at another way of ranking countries: level of happiness!

In a world that often seems obsessed with power and money, and is currently experiencing a pandemic and the massive consequences that come along with the disease, perhaps we all need a little more happiness. Over the last year, millions of people have lost family members and friends, found themselves unemployed, had their plans cancelled, and been stuck inside during lockdowns and quarantines! How has this affected the world’s happiness? What is currently the happiest country in the world? And how can we measure levels of happiness? Fortunately for us, the 2021 World Happiness Report was released on the 20th March and answers many of these questions.

The World Happiness Report is a publication from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The report includes a number of  articles, as well as rankings of national happiness which is based on people’s ratings of their own lives. In a nutshell, this survey was started in 2012 to rank global happiness in countries around the world. The researchers usually ask about 1000 people in each country a few questions, and the well-being score relies on three main indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions. For life evaluations, participants evaluate their current life as a whole by scoring their life between 0-10, with the best possible life for them as a 10 and worst possible as a 0. For positive emotions, people are asked whether they smiled or laughed a lot yesterday and whether they experienced enjoyment during a lot of yesterday. And finally, negative emotions are measured by asking respondents whether they experienced specific negative emotions during a lot of the day yesterday. Measures including social support, personal freedom, gross domestic product (GDP) and levels of corruption were also included!

In previous years, the experts used data from the Gallup World poll, but that was not completely possible in 2020. As researchers struggled to do face-to-face interviews in some countries, this year’s report focuses on the link between well-being and Covid-19 to rank the countries. While in rich and industrial countries online interviews are unlikely to change the results too much, in poorer countries moving interviews from face-to-face to online can change the type of person interviewed. It also reduced the number of participants in the survey!

So, now I’ve explained how the World Happiness Report works, let’s have a look at the results! For the fourth year in a row Finland is once again the happiest country in the world according to the survey data. Finland “ranked very high on the measures of mutual trust that have helped to protect lives and livelihoods during the pandemic”, the authors said. According to John Hopkins University, Finland has managed the pandemic better compared to the majority of Europe, with just over 70,000 cases and only 805 deaths. Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands also feature in this year’s top five.

I’ll obviously include a link to the full list and report in the description of the podcast and on the Thinking in English blog, but now i’ll mention a few other significant countries. Despite all of the major challenges in the US, they are actually happier this year than last year! Norway has fallen from the third happiest in 2019 to the eighth in 2021, while the UK has also fallen to 18th! Two European countries that improved significantly this year are Germany and Croatia, which are now number 10 and 23 on the list. The report makes it clear that trust in governments and Covid-19 have been the largest influences on our well-being over the last year, and I guess this is reflected in the changing rankings in Europe.

For example, in countries with strong, and most importantly successful, responses in the coronavirus happiness was found to be higher. A significant number of Asian countries improved on the 2021 list. Shun Wang of the Korea Development Institute stated that “The East Asian experience shows that stringent government policies not only control Covid-19 effectively, but also buffer the negative impact of daily infections on people’s happiness.” Australia and New Zealand, two other countries with strong and successful responses to the pandemic, also ranked highly. According to the report’s editors “The evidence shows that people’s morale improves when the government acts.”  

On the other end of the scale, the World Happiness Report also looks at the places where people are the unhappiest. This year Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Jordan were all ranked close to the bottom. As I previously mentioned, trust in government and the pandemic response have been key in global happiness; the low ranking countries struggle with both. 

How about some more general facts? The report found that there was “significantly higher frequency of negative emotions” in about a third of the world. Again, this was probably linked to the pandemic and various lockdowns around the globe. Despitethis,  “surprisingly there was not, on average, a decline in well-being when measured by people’s own evaluation of their lives.” John Helliwell, one of the authors of the report stated that “one possible explanation is that people see COVID-19 as a common, outside threat affecting everybody and that this has generated a greater sense of solidarity.”

This year’s World Happiness Report also found the mental health around the world has suffered due to the pandemic and resulting lockdowns. As the pandemic moved across the globe, there was an immediate and significant decline in people’s mental health in many of the countries surveyed. It can be hard to compare different countries’ mental health performance as there can be differences in how countries measure and assess this. However, the report finds that the impact has been similar around the world. For instance, in the UK, in May 2020, people’s mental health was measured at 10% worse than before the pandemic, and the number of mental health problems reported was 47% higher. Working at home and social distancing also had an effect on people’s wellbeing. People who were unemployed or unable to work last year were significantly less happy.

Final Thought

The 2021 World Happiness Report has ranked the countries of the world on their happiness. Finland, along with other Northern European countries, performed the best and apparently has the happiest population. Trust in government and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic were probably the key factors behind a country’s happiness this year. In places with strong and successful responses to the pandemic, people were able to live more usual lives and remain happy. If other countries around the world want to make their populations happier, they need to work on building trust between the people, the government, and the institutions that help run the country. Hopefully the vaccination programmes scheduled to place throughout 2021 will help to make the world happier next year!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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