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Report assesses impact of COVID-19 on global happiness

March 22, 2021
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Originally posted in SFU News

Amid the impact of a global pandemic, the 2021 World Happiness Report has sought out how happiness has fared ranking Canada 15th in the world for happiness.

Finland is the world’s happiest country, for the fourth year in a row. The Scandinavian country continually ranks high on measures of mutual trust that have helped to protect lives and livelihoods during the pandemic.

Simon Fraser University psychology associate professor Lara Aknin, who worked on this year’s report as an associate editor, says despite the challenges of 2020 there are some bright spots.  

"This has been a very challenging year, but the early data also show some notable signs of resilience in feelings of social connection and life evaluations," says Aknin, who co-wrote the report’s chapter on life under COVID-19.

Widespread mental health decline after initial outbreak

Many countries saw an immediate decline in mental health when the pandemic struck.

In the UK, in May 2020, a general measure of mental health was 7.7 per cent lower than predicted in the absence of the pandemic, and the number of mental health problems reported was 47 per cent higher.

The pandemic led to a larger decline in mental health among women and young people, although young people’s mental health returned to normal more quickly. Data from the U.S. shows that the percentage of people experiencing psychological distress was greatest in the under 40 age group.

Workforce well-being

Unemployment during the pandemic is associated with a 12 per cent decrease in life satisfaction. For those that were already lonely, losing jobs meant losing social connections and becoming much less happier. People who could not work due to furlough or redundancy who reported being lonely to begin with became 43 per cent less happy than people who were not lonely.

The social connections and a sense of identity that work can provide are important for happiness. In the future, the report suggests a balance between office life and working from home can help maintain social connections while ensuring flexibility for workers.

Trust a key factor for how countries fared under COVID-19

Of all the factors that determined happiness, the most important for explaining COVID-19 death rates were people’s trust in each other and confidence in their governments.

Trust helped countries find and implement successful COVID-19 strategies. The most successful strategy was to drive community transmission to zero and keep it there.

Trust and the ability to count on others are major supports to life evaluations, especially in the face of crisis. 

Variation in death rates between countries

Death rates were much higher in the Americas and Europe compared to East Asia, Australia and Africa. For instance, there were more stringent government policies to control COVID-19 in East Asia. The report points to the individualism of the West leading to less use of masks, compliance with rules and lower measured levels of science literacy.

Other cultural factors that account for variation between countries include: knowledge from previous epidemics, income inequality, and whether the head of government was a woman (who have tended to favour making policy with overall well-being as an objective).

Importance of feeling connected

The report also highlights the importance of staying connected for happiness including connecting digitally. Many positive features of a person’s life preserved this sense of connectedness including gratitude, grit, prior connections, volunteering, exercising and having a pet. It also helped to have activities that provided ‘flow,’ a state of mind where a person is fully immersed in an activity.