This List of the 10 Happiest Countries Reveals A Surprising, Wholesome Change in People

The pandemic changed even more about the world in 2021. But there's some good news.

a person in Lapland, Finland, stands in the snow and looks at the Northern Lights
Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld / Getty Images

The pandemic has taken a devastating toll around the world. Uncertainty and fear understandably seemed to rule us for the last two years, but, according to the World Happiness Report, there may have been an unexpected bright spot— in the face of unprecedented times and widespread struggle, it seems we all got a little nicer. Really.

The World Happiness Report is a United Nations publication that attempts to gauge — you guessed it — the happiness of people, and the happiest countries, around the world. This is the tenth anniversary of the WHR and the ninth publication. To determine a country’s overall happiness level, the survey focuses on three factors: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions, and ranks countries accordingly.

To determine how happy a country is, the WHR asked respondents to rank both positive and negative emotions felt over the course of a day and then calculated the “net balance” of those emotions. Surprisingly, during 2021, what many consider to be the dog days of the COVID-19 pandemic, positive emotions (enjoyment, laughter, and learning/doing something interesting) outweighed negative emotions (sadness, anger, worry) by almost 3 to 1 globally.

The 10 Happiest Countries in the World

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Luxembourg
  7. Sweden
  8. Norway
  9. Israel
  10. New Zealand

A quick glance at the happiest countries in the world shows you that, once again, it pays (in joy, at least) to be Nordic. Finland took the top spot—the “Happiest Place in the World”—for the fifth year running, followed by its Nordic neighbors Denmark and Iceland along with Switzerland and the Netherlands to round out the top five. Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand also made the top 10, with the U.S. coming in at 16th out of the more than 150 countries surveyed. But it’s not just about who is at the top. The countries with the steepest gains in happiness since the early days of the WHR are Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Togo, Bahrain, Latvia, Benin, Guinea, and Armenia.

The Biggest Takeaway? People Got A Lot Nicer and Trusting

Surveyors also found that the scores for acts of benevolence, like helping a stranger, giving to charity, or volunteering, increased by a shocking 25%.

Worry and sadness were understandably at a peak during 2020 but seemed to taper off throughout 2021, while anger also spiked during the early days of the pandemic but has since trended down slightly.

Smiling and laughing unsurprisingly decreased during the pandemic, while learning to do something new trended slightly upward thanks to all those newfound lockdown hobbies.

Another surprising twist is that people around the globe seem to be trending upward in freedom to make their own choices and in governmental trust and trending downward in the belief that their government is corrupt.

“COVID-19 is the biggest health crisis we’ve seen in more than a century,” said John Helliwell. “Now that we have two years of evidence, we are able to assess not just the importance of benevolence and trust, but to see how they have contributed to well-being during the pandemic,” report co-author John Helliwell said in a press release.

“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.”

Taken as a whole, the survey paints a positive picture of where we are now compared to where we were as COVID-19 began its takeover. The world was in crisis, and people were sad and angry and worried, but, according to the data, there was an upswell in decency and people taking care of one another. That’s actually really good news.