Amid the pandemic and other struggles that have affected most people on Earth in recent years, there are some bright spots of hope to be found – at least according to the new World Happiness Report 2022 just published by researchers and experts.
The report is put together by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, using data from the Gallup World Poll. This year's report, the tenth anniversary of the survey, collected responses from approximately 1,000 respondents in each of the 156 countries that participate.
While the ongoing effects of the coronavirus outbreak have undoubtedly brought pain and suffering to many, there has also been an increase in support that people show for each other, and in expressions of benevolence, the study authors report.
"We found during 2021 remarkable worldwide growth in all three acts of kindness monitored in the Gallup World Poll," says economist John Helliwell from the University of British Columbia in Canada.
"Helping strangers, volunteering, and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25 percent above their pre-pandemic prevalence."
With disease and war continuing to impact wellbeing (the data here was collected before the conflict between Russia and Ukraine), it's a reminder that there is still hope for humanity – that in times of trial we can come together.
"This surge of benevolence, which was especially great for the helping of strangers, provides powerful evidence that people respond to help others in need, creating in the process more happiness for the beneficiaries, good examples for others to follow, and better lives for themselves," Helliwell says.
In terms of individual countries, the people of Finland were ranked as the happiest in 2022 – the fifth year in a row the nation has held the top spot. Denmark came in second, with Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands rounding out the top five.
The team behind the report suggests high trust, social cohesion, a good work-life balance, and free education and healthcare are the key reasons why the Scandinavian countries rank highly in the report every year.
While the positioning hasn't shifted much from last year, the biggest gains in happiness were seen in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The biggest drops in happiness scores were observed in Lebanon and Venezuela, and in Afghanistan, where life continues to be difficult for many since the Taliban regained control in August 2021.
"At the very bottom of the ranking we find societies that suffer from conflict and extreme poverty," says economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve from the University of Oxford in the UK.
"Notably we find that people in Afghanistan evaluate the quality of their own lives as merely 2.4 out of 10. This presents a stark reminder of the material and immaterial damage that war does to its many victims and the fundamental importance of peace and stability for human wellbeing."
Stress, worry, and sadness have increased overall, the researchers report, with the pandemic in particular having a "tangible impact" on lives and happiness. Future concerns are likely to focus around war, rises in the cost of living, and the shifts happening due to the climate crisis.
Different attitudes are revealed in different age groups. Among the young, for example, life satisfaction has fallen – but it has also risen in the over-60s. However, overall there has been a slight long-term decline in the enjoyment of life in most countries.
The World Happiness Report is intended to promote happiness and wellbeing as well as report on it. While researchers continue to discover new insights into what makes us happy, our happiness or lack of it still depends largely on environmental factors and what's going on around us.
While conflict, disease, poverty, and inequality continue to be major problems in 2022, the researchers suggest there's plenty of potential for taking better care of ourselves, whether that's at the level of governments or individual actions.
"Acts of kindness and generosity can help us cope in difficult times by giving us a sense of purpose, something practical to focus on and showing the strength of the human spirit," explains Mark Williamson, CEO of the charity Action for Happiness.
"We can build good mental health by taking positive action to help others."
To see the report in full, check out the World Happiness Report website.