What does being a happy country mean during a pandemic? Freezing temperatures, dark winter days, a high cost of living: who would ever want to live in a place like that? As it turns out, that is precisely where you can find the happiest people in the world. Finland won the United Nation's World Happiness Report's top spot for the fourth year in a row.
With low unemployment and inequality rates and high income per capita and life expectancy, this small heaven of just 8.7 million people is an ideal place to live during a crisis such as the one the world experienced over the past year. Although slipping one spot from the previous edition of the ranking, the general level of life satisfaction expressed by the Austrian population remained almost unchanged. Austrians’ excellent quality of life goes hand in hand with their strong sense of community and civic duty, and these qualities proved more precious than ever during the pandemic.
Home to about 5 million people and 26 million sheep, New Zealand too—the only non-European nation in the ranking. Kiwis take their happiness seriously and are quick to spring into action when something threatens it. They enacted stringent measures to control the spread of the virus early on and they stuck to them. Two other factors, the researchers of the happiness report say, might have played a positive role in limiting transmissions: being an island nation (which makes population movements easier to control) is associated with fewer cases and deaths; having a female head of government—and especially one as effective and well-liked as Jacinta Arden—is twice the luck.
Just five years ago, this land of castles, lakes and rolling hills occupied the 20th position in the happiness ranking. Luxembourg made it into the top 10 in the 2020 edition of the report, and it gained two additional spots since then. Yet, how does that square with the fact that one in 10 of its citizens contracted Covid-19, almost more than anywhere else globally? The explanation is fairly simple: the Grand Duchy represents a positive example of more testing resulting in higher official case numbers. Certainly, the fact that this small nation of a little over 600,000 people scores above average in social connections and subjective well-being helped too. And while money cannot buy happiness, it does not hurt that Luxembourg is among the richest countries in the world where workers enjoy an average gross salary of roughly $6,000 per month.
Sweden has consistently ranked high in the list thanks to the two key elements of happiness that proved particularly important through all the trials and tribulations of 2020: its strong social support networks and perceived honesty and accountability of its institutions. Sweden’s controversial approach to the pandemic has been widely criticized. The country never went into lockdown or imposed strict social-distancing measures in a (failed) initial attempt to achieve herd immunity. As a result, it experienced more cases and deaths than its Nordic neighbors. Every edition of the World Happiness Report combines data from the previous three years of surveys to make the sample size large enough and to reduce the random sampling errors—following this methodology, Sweden takes the seventh position in the ranking for the third year in a row.
It is one the most prosperous countries in the world—and one of the most virtuous. Norwegians think that democracy should enforce equality. The result is less income and gender disparity, excellent free healthcare and more confidence in elected officials. Social and institutional trust, as we have learned, emerged as crucial factors in determining the well-being of citizens in 2020 and Norway has mostly been successful in keeping Covid-19 mortality rates low and mitigating the economic impact of lockdowns.
The Dutch score well when it comes to social connections and institutional trust, and remain more affluent, educated and freer to make their own life choices than at any point in their country’s history. That, of course, does not mean that the Dutch have not had their share of coronavirus-induced problems. When the pandemic broke early in 2020, the government launched a series of both voluntary and involuntary so-called “intelligent lockdown measures” aimed at minimizing new infections while keeping the economy running as much as possible. They worked—at least for a while. As the year progressed, against a backdrop of rising infections and newly introduced months-long lockdowns, people started growing impatient. When last January the government imposed the first nationwide curfew since World War II, violent demonstrations exploded in the streets of all major cities.
Iceland routinely tops a wide variety of quality-of-life rankings. Chosen by both the World Economic Forum as the best country in the world for gender equality and the Institute for Economics and Peace as the most peaceful for more than 10 years in a row, this republic of just a little over 360,000 is also a shining example of how to handle a pandemic—to this day, Iceland has recorded less than 30 deaths due to Covid-19. Iceland thus maintains for the third year in a row the fourth position in the happiness ranking—and with its enchanting landscapes, free healthcare and education, and extraordinary collective sense of trust and community, it is no surprise that once again it came so close to the top of the UN index.
After the first wave of Covid-19, this nation of about 8.5 million relaxed its pandemic measures faster than other European countries, a mistake it almost immediately paid with a sharp increase in the number of confirmed cases and deaths. However, even Covid-19 cannot change the fact that the country seems to have been created precisely for the pursuit of a happy life. Switzerland can boast postcard landscapes and clean air, state of the art infrastructure and education services, both great wealth and equal distribution of resources. Making chocolate and cheese and not war helps too: Switzerland is notoriously neutral and has not been involved in a war since 1847.
Coming in runner-up for the third year in a row, Denmark topped the list in the first report, in 2012, and again in 2013 and 2016. Nordic countries share similar social and political models and values. That explains why all of them feature among the 10 happiest nations in the world and why they often swap places on the happiness podium. Danes have plenty of reasons to be content with their way of living: their country scores high when it comes to work-life balance, environment and healthcare. Denmark also prides itself on having one of the smallest wealth gaps in the world—and a society where people share both the burdens and the benefits equally, the report shows, is a happier society.
Finland has not been immune from the pandemic. Yet, it moved quickly and comprehensively, and it handled it better than most of its counterparts. To take their mind off their problems, Finns also have a lot going for them. This country of happy people enjoys high standards of living, a thriving cultural life and 3 million very relaxing saunas. With more forest per square mile than any other European nation, many Finns also credit their connection with nature and the outdoors for their satisfaction with life. The reigning champion of happiness even offers tips to the rest of world on how to live better. Through its tourism organization, it recommends a lot of swimming, hiking and biking, and walks in forests overflowing with berries, mushrooms and wild herbs.