Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening and closing, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
Devastating loss of life and growing uncertainty have the world very much on edge, but there is a bit of good news for humanity: Benevolence is surging globally.
That’s one of the key findings of the World Happiness Report, a publication of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network that draws on global survey data from people in about 150 countries.
Marking its 10th anniversary, the report looks at happiness around the world – the happiest nations, those at the very bottom of the happiness scale and everything in between, plus the factors that tend to lead to greater happiness.
And with two years of Covid-19 pandemic data on the books, the report has uncovered something unexpected.
“The big surprise was that globally, in an uncoordinated way, there have been very large increases in all the three forms of benevolence that are asked about in the Gallup World Poll,” John Helliwell, one of the report’s three founding editors, told CNN Travel.
Donating to charity, helping a stranger and volunteering are all up, “especially the help to strangers in 2021, relative to either before the pandemic or 2020, by a very large amount in all regions of the world,” said Helliwell, who is a professor emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia.
The global average of the three measures jumped by about 25% in 2021 compared with pre-pandemic levels, the report says.
And benevolence is certainly top of mind as the world responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But before getting into how that increasingly global conflict may impact happiness, let’s look at countries where the feeling was abundant in 2021.
World’s happiest nation is Nordic
For the fifth year in a row, Finland is the world’s happiest country, according to World Happiness Report rankings based largely on life evaluations from the Gallup World Poll.
The Nordic country and its neighbors Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland all score very well on the measures the report uses to explain its findings: healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support in times of trouble, low corruption and high social trust, generosity in a community where people look after each other and freedom to make key life decisions.
Denmark comes in at No. 2 in this year’s rankings, followed by Iceland at No. 3. Sweden and Norway are seventh and eighth, respectively.
Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg take places 4 through 6, with Israel coming in at No. 9 and New Zealand rounding out the top 10.
Canada (No. 15), the United States (No. 16) and the United Kingdom (No. 17) all made it into the top 20.
Happiness in troubled times
Another bright spot in this year’s report: Worry and stress dipped in the pandemic’s second year. While they were still up 4% in 2021 versus pre-pandemic, worry and stress in 2020 were up by 8%.
“I think part of that is people knew a little more what they were dealing with in the second year, even if there were new surprises,” Helliwell said.
Average life evaluations “have remained remarkably resilient” during the pandemic, with negative and positive influences offsetting each other, the report says.
“For the young, life satisfaction has fallen, while for those over 60, it has risen – with little overall change,” according to the report.
Helliwell acknowledges that there’s a sense that crises bring out either the best or the worst in societies.
“But in general, people are too pessimistic about the goodwill in the societies they live in, so then when the actual disaster happens and they see other people responding positively to help others, it raises their opinion both of themselves and of their fellow citizens,” Helliwell said.
“And so you find both trust in others and general life evaluations often rise in times when you think ‘these are bad times,’ but what’s happening is people are working together to deal with them.”
This interplay of negative and positive very much applies to the situation in Ukraine, although how the scales will ultimately tip remains to be seen. Working together will certainly offset, to some degree, the tragedies affecting Ukrainians, Helliwell said.
“Their heartland is being attacked, so they’ll be getting some coming-together effect, but of course the actual damage is terrible.”
The effects the war will have on overall happiness in Russia are especially murky because government censorship distorts information that could inform life evaluations.
The surveys this year’s happiness rankings were based on were conducted well before the invasion. Ukraine and Russia both fall into the bottom half of world rankings for happiness in the 2022 report, with Ukraine at No. 98 and Russia at No. 80.
At No. 146, Afghanistan is at the very bottom of the rankings in the 2022 report, “a stark reminder of the material and immaterial damage that war does to its many victims,” Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, another report editor, said in a news release.
The current war raging in Ukraine means happiness in other parts of the world could teeter as well.
“It’s conceivable some people seeing what war can do close up on their television screens every day to the lives of people who have nothing to do with war and want nothing to do with war can make them feel lucky they’re not there or empathetic to the point of pain for the people who are there,” Helliwell said.
“And they’re both real and understandable emotions, but they’re playing on opposite sides of the balance.”
Hopefully, the uptick in benevolence – in all its forms - carries into 2022 and beyond.
The world’s happiest countries, 2022 edition
10. New Zealand
16. United States
17. United Kingdom
18. Czechia (Czech Republic)