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March 29, 2021

The 2021 World Happiness Report has been released—and the news is surprisingly good

Daily Briefing

    Even amid a global pandemic, self-reported life satisfaction in 95 countries remained steady throughout 2020, according to the 2021 World Happiness Report—a finding that surprised even the report's authors, Ryan Bacic reports for the Washington Post.

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    Life satisfaction remains steady

    For the report, researchers drew data from the Gallup World Poll, a survey that asks respondents to rate their life satisfaction from zero to 10, with 10 representing "the best possible life for you."

    The top 20 countries in overall happiness, according to the report, were:

    1. Finland;
    2. Denmark;
    3. Switzerland;
    4. Iceland;
    5. Netherlands;
    6. Norway;
    7. Sweden;
    8. Luxembourg;
    9. New Zealand;
    10. Austria;
    11. Australia;
    12. Israel;
    13. Germany;
    14. Canada;
    15. Ireland;
    16. Costa Rica;
    17. United Kingdom;
    18. Czech Republic;
    19. United States; and
    20. Belgium.

    According to the report, the United States in 2020 fell just one spot, to 19th—a ranking that demonstrates how the country, despite an increase in the number of people reporting feelings of anxiety and depression, retained a high overall level of life satisfaction.

    Specifically, the researchers found that 58.2% of Americans in late March and April of 2020 reported a life satisfaction level of seven or higher, according to Gallup—a figure that remained relatively steady through December 2020.

    Moreover, according to Bacic, Americans' expectations for greater future happiness remained high. Five surveys conducted since the start of the pandemic indicate that between 65.8% and 69.2% of Americans anticipate their life satisfaction to be at least an eight five years from now, Bacic reports, a higher rate than before the start of the pandemic.

    People's optimism for the future is 'really, really adaptive'

    Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University and one of the report's editors, said while the report editors "don't want to leave an impression that all was well, because it's not," the findings indicate that "people have not thrown up their hands about their lives."

    John Helliwell, another report editor and professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia, added that the findings don't necessarily suggest people are faring as well as they were previously, but rather than they have adapted to their new circumstances in ways that seem to have about evened out their overall levels of well-being. "One of the quotes we use is 'You aren't traveling the world, but you're more likely to have met your neighbors this year,'" he said.

    Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, who was not an editor of the report, echoed that sentiment, saying the findings show that optimism for the future is "really, really adaptive." She added, "We have the most massive changes in social behavior we've ever seen in our lifetimes happen during this pandemic. And so I would have expected much, much bigger declines in well-being. And we do not see that."

    How to find happiness in hard times

    According to Bacic, psychologists and other experts say there are ways to find or maintain a sense of happiness during difficult or stressful times.

    For instance, Ethan Kross, a professor and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan, said looking for for awe-inducing experiences can be beneficial. "When you experience awe, that's an emotion we have when you're in the presence of something that's vast and hard to explain," Kross said, citing his own awe-inducing experience of watching Perseverance rove Mars.

    "What science has shown is that when you experience awe, that leads to a 'shrinking of the self,'" Kross explained. "So our own problems feel smaller by comparison."

    According to Bacic, a 2018 study published in the journal Emotion came to a similar conclusion, finding that the extent to which participants in a whitewater-rafting trip said they experienced awe was the best predictor for changes in their well-being and stress a week later.

    Social support is also key, the World Happiness Report found, with "the ability to count on others" being listed as a "major" support to life evaluations in 2020, Bacic reports. "Social support is by far one of the best ways to help people cope with any kind of adversity or stress or tragedy," Lyubomirsky said.

    Finding meaning in difficult experiences can also be an effective coping mechanism, according to Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist. "Humans are meaning-making machines," she said, noting that finding positive meaning in trying times can improve your outlook.

    When faced with a challenging situation, Eurich recommended asking questions such as "What are the strengths or insights that I showed up with in facing the situation?" or "What have I learned about myself or about my most important relationships?" It can also be helpful to consider how your future self may benefit from what you're currently experiencing.

    Overall, Kross said the report is a welcome new narrative on resilience during the pandemic. "This discourse right now is so much on the negative side of things, and for very good reason," he said, adding, "But I do think that [this is] a story about hope" (Bacic, Washington Post, 3/23).

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