Navigating Happiness Amidst COVID-19: Key Outcomes from World Happiness Report Webinar

On March 20, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and authors of the World Happiness Report (WHR) hosted the first webinar in SDSN’s new Tracking National Progress Webinar series.

The webinar focused around the recently released World Happiness Report 2020 (WHR) and highlighted how people can use the report as a learning tool to navigate happiness amidst the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, as well as what can be learned from top-ranked countries and cities in the report. The release of the WHR came during a time where the meaning of happiness has become very skewed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. However, authors of the WHR argued that happiness is not lost, and the key to finding it during this time is not through social distancing but rather through distance socializing. Remaining socially connected with friends, colleagues, and family is crucial in finding happiness during this public health crisis.

This year’s report included the annual ranking of national happiness with chapters focused on the environment - social, urban, and natural. This was also the first year that the WHR included the ranks of cities instead of just countries.The top-ranked cities positively correlated to previously top-ranked countries in the WHR. According to Christian Krekel of the London School of Economics, co-author of Chapter Three: Cities and Happiness - Global Ranking and Analysis and Chapter Five: How Environmental Quality Affects Our Happiness of the WHR, cities are critical beacons of social well-being as more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas. As learned from Martin J. Burger of Erasmus the University of Rotterdam, author of Chapter Four: Urban-Rural Happiness Differentials Across the World, people prefer to live in urban areas due to the higher standard of living and better economic opportunities. However, this does not necessarily mean a higher income per capita will create a better sense of happiness. For example, unaffordable housing in certain cities will cause unhappiness. To maximize happiness, cities need to understand what environment is best suitable for their inhabitants. The top ranked countries are listed below, with Finland (Helsinki) ranked number one for the third year in a row.

# Figure 2.1: Ranking of Happiness 2017–2019 (Part 1)

Figure 2.1: Ranking of Happiness 2017–2019 (Part 1)

When measured, there are six components of happiness: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, sense of freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption. John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, co-author of Chapter One: Environments for Happiness: An Overview and Chapter Two: Social Environments for World Happiness, spoke about the importance of generosity and the components of happiness when measuring the cities, specifically trust in one another and within institutions. These components play a crucial role especially in a time of need. The top five countries on the list all have two major similarities: trust in public institutions and social connection. The more social connection a country or city has, the lesser amount of inequality there will be. During this time of living in COVID-19, Helliwell reminded us that the capacity is there in every community to work together to build better lives for one another. He also suggested people have to keep the warmth of generosity and social connection alive, and that the “power for innovation lies within all of us,” to get through difficult times and to remain socially connected.

# Webinar Summary

The webinar was moderated by WHR co-editor Lara Akin, WHR Production Editor Sharon Paculor, and Prof. Jeffery Sachs, SDSN President. It began with inspiring video messages from WHR partners. These were messages of hope and how people can find happiness amidst COVID-19 and what the world can do to come out stronger after this global crisis. The partners argued that the WHR can be “an inspiring learning tool for us to imagine and create a better world; a world that humans will inhabit, not dispose of.” Partner, Jen Gross, co-founder of the Blue Chip Foundation, said, “I believe the donor community must do more to support increasingly proactive approaches to well-being.” COVID-19 has refocused the world to global health and well-being priorities.

Following, the webinar was broken down with the main takeaways from each chapter in the WHR.

Jeffery Sachs and Richard Layard, also co-authors of chapter two, spoke about how to combat COVID-19 on an economical level through social support. They suggested:

  • To proactively act to stop the virus before it’s too late.
  • Change our values and perspectives to focus on the health and well-being of others.
  • Value cooperation over competition and prioritize the well-being of people over the GDP.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford and a co-author of Chapter Three: Cities and Happiness - A Global Ranking and Analysis, complemented the need for social support:

  • It is important to maintain our social relationships with others during this economic downturn to not lose our identity held before COVID-19.

In Chapter Five: How Environmental Quality Affects our Happiness, a discussion led by George MacKerron of the University of Sussex and co-founder of Psychological Technologies, spoke on the importance of natural happiness

  • On the Gallup World Poll, used in chapter five, “62% of participants said they would prioritize environmental growth over economical growth.”
  • Environments need to be accessible and sustainable for its people, to create natural happiness.
  • Examples include exercise, such as hiking, gardening and running - all of which are still encouraged to do in solidarity during COVID-19.

Following chapter five, De Neve, also a co-author of Chapter Six: Sustainable Development and Human Well-Being, spoke on how the happiest cities also had high scores correlating to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  • All SDGs were positively correlated to the happiness and well-being of people except SDG 12 and 13: Responsible Consumption and Production and Climate Action.
  • This arises to tensions in resist to behavior change and policies.
  • Acceptance to change and prioritizing environmental growth is key.

Frank Martela of the Aalto University in Finland and co-author of Chapter Seven: The Nordic Exceptionalism: What Explains Why the Nordic Countries Are Constantly Among the Happiest in the World. As echoed throughout the webinar, Martela mentioned how the Nordic countries are at the top of the list of the WHR due to trust and generosity. These components are all a part of a virtuous cycle to obtain happiness:

  • providing citizens extensive benefits and security;
  • high trust in institutions and each other;
  • voting for parties preserving the institutions; and
  • well-functioning and democratic institutions.

All of these cycles act together and not alone. In regard to COVID-19, Martela argues that high trust countries and cities are more resilient to change and crisis, and he said, “In unity, we will get through this together.”

# Watch the webinar

# Download the webinar presentations