The timing of the annual World Happiness Report may seem unfortunate ― it launched today, as the world grapples with how to react to the coronavirus pandemic without social and economic meltdown. But the report authors point to vital lessons that countries with high levels of well-being can teach us about how to survive the coronavirus crisis.
For the third year in a row, Finland has been named the happiest country in the world. Other Nordic countries dominate, with Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden all making the top 10.
The secret to their success? “They are all very high trust societies,” John Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia, and one of the report’s authors, told HuffPost. “Any individual who feels that sense of belonging and high trust, which is more common in the Nordic countries than elsewhere, is much more sheltered against adversity of many types,” he said.
The World Happiness Report, now in its eighth iteration, ranks the happiness of 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be and is based on data from Gallup World Poll studies.
“The World Happiness Report has proven to be an indispensable tool for policymakers looking to better understand what makes people happy and thereby to promote the wellbeing of their citizenry,” said economist and report co-author Jeffrey Sachs in a statement about the report. “Time and again we see the reasons for well-being include good social support networks, social trust, honest governments, safe environments, and healthy lives.”
This year, the focus is on “happiness in our environment,” including the social environment ― meaning our communities and our bonds with friends and families. This is especially relevant for us now, faced with COVID-19, said Helliwell. “This pandemic is a crisis of a sort that’s been witnessed in smaller forms recently enough that we know quite a lot about what makes for more resilient responses.”
He pointed to studies done in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and other natural disasters, which show that communities that are strong to start with have a better and more coordinated response and emerge from the crisis more resilient.
There may be lessons for countries like the United States here, which placed 18th (one place up from last year, but still a long way from 2011 when it placed 11th). Despite its high GDP, happiness in America is very unequal, the report finds, connecting this with a wide gap between rich and poor, and a lack of welfare services and social support for low-income people.
The Nordic countries, on the other hand, are famed for their strong societies. “There’s more social trust and capital, more charity, more volunteering and more donations, more pro-social behavior in these kinds of societies that do well,” said Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, professor of economics at the University of Oxford and another report author.
Societies which are riven with division, polarization and mistrust, on the other hand, fare badly in the face of huge disruptions. While the U.S. has seen heartwarming examples of community action and solidarity lately, there are also high levels of mistrust, food hoarding and fear. And this impacts how we deal with the coronavirus.
De Neve believes the coronavirus crisis will unfold in three parts. First health (dealing with the health impacts and attempts to “flatten the curve,” or slow the rise of new cases so as not to overwhelm the health care system), then economic (as job losses come and incomes are squeezed). The third part, he said, is well-being, how we keep our mental health intact when we are isolated.
“What you’ll find in that third phase will be the importance and the strength of communities,” De Neve said. “Do you have friends to rely on? Do you have family in the first place? Do you live in a community that reaches out to another and helps each other?”
All the well-being science, he said, predicts that communities that are more resilient to start with will cope much better and that people in stronger communities are more likely to recover faster when they are sick.
On the other hand, said Helliwell, “some societies are so concentrated on their differences and their anger with each other, that they end up blaming other people for the natural disaster, and not cooperating and finding the best ways of dealing with it.”
One point raised by the report authors is the role social media will play in shoring up these social connections in a time of social distancing. This may seem counterintuitive given social media’s well-documented role in sowing division and mistrust. Last year, the report found social media was having a negative impact on happiness, especially for young people and women. Girls who spent five or more hours a day on social media, for example, were found to be three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.
But during a lockdown, social media could, said Van Neve, “come into its own and be a force for good ... allowing and providing essentially a vaccine against loneliness.”
What the report authors all agreed on is the need to foster a deep sense of trust in society, however that manifests itself as the public health crisis rolls on.
“What the report is essentially telling us,” Helliwell said, “is that this human need and capacity for looking out for each other, trusting each other, and looking after each other, is uniquely important.”
And as the search for a vaccine against the virus continues, Helliwell suggested there could be a second “vaccine” of sorts while we wait: “A social vaccine that protects us against loneliness and disconnection and other things that can happen when a disease asks you to be physically isolated, when the last thing you want is social isolation.”
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