Happiness in a time of COVID

It may be surprising but a lot of people in the world are happier in the midst of COVID and lockdowns than they were – although Australia is a slight exception.

The World Happiness Report 2021, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, compares happiness in various countries and its latest report tracks changes from 2017-2019 and compares them with 2020.

The core of the report is regular Gallup polling which asks people to rank their happiness using a nought to 10 ladder which allows people to rank their lives from the best it can be to the worst.

It found that Finland was once again the happiest country in the world, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the Finnish climate and its proximity to the Russian gangster state that’s hard to imagine but then living amongst great design, more saunas than people, a world-beating education system and a great musical culture has its advantages.

The second happiest is Iceland – up from fourth in 2017-19. Very low power bills due to abundant thermal power and a slow recovery from the financial insanity which destroyed their banks probably helped also.

The country is also a reminder that it is possible to have an inexpensive and carbon neutral aluminum industry, unlike Australia where billions of dollars in subsidies have gone to the Portland Aluminum smelter. Although in Iceland environmental pressure on the industry’s expansion is growing while subsidies in Victoria just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Australian comes in at a creditable 12th but that’s one spot down on the last survey. Our relative experience of COVID ought to have made us happier but perhaps our expectations of our governments compared with their performance soured our mood.

After Finland and Iceland countries happier than ours were: Denmark, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Austria and Israel. Coming immediately behind us were Ireland, the US, Canada, Czech Republic, Belgium, the UK, Taiwan, France and Saudi Arabia.

Happiness rankings for Iceland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany got better with Germany leaping from being ranked 15 in 2017-19 to seventh in 2020. Ireland’s ranking got better as did the US while Canada and France slipped quite a lot.

The unhappiest country was Zimbabwe which beat, in ascending order, Tanzania, Jordan, India, Cambodia, Benin, Myanmar, Namibia and Egypt.

Iran’s happiness score increased while that of Turkey, Zambia and Venezuela plummeted.

Interestingly happiness fell in Latin America (for instance in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia and Mexico) while in East Asia (China, Japan and Taiwan) happiness increased. Pervasive lack of trust in the first compared with more trust in the second may be the explanation.

The US case is again an outlier. Despite the US’ poor initial performance and half a million excess deaths there was a slight rise in American happiness in 2020. One possible explanation is the Trump take on the virus and that many of his supporters live in an alternate universe convinced that COVID is like the flu or just a nefarious plot to take away people’s rights. The promulgators of fake news probably believed what they didn’t believe was the real fake news.

The Report says that while there has been death, disruption, anxiety, greater economic insecurity the Gallup World Poll, Eurobarometer and national surveys show surprising resilience.

Emotions changed more than life satisfaction, worsening more during lockdowns and recovering faster. There was, however, a 10% increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the previous day.

Age structure, being an island, having high measures of social trust, confidence in institutions and whether the head of government was a woman all contributed to successful COVID strategies.

But the report concluded: “the most effective (means) for controlling COVID was to drive community transmission to zero and keep it there.”

It also highlighted that mental health was a major casualty of the pandemic. People with positive features in their life – “gratitude, grit, prior connections, volunteering, taking exercise and having a pet” – helped protect a sense of connectedness. In contrast prior mental illness, a sense of uncertainty, and a lack of proper digital connections had a negative impact.

Locked down Australians may, therefore, have been slightly unhappier because they had to deal with the sub-standard NBN system bequeathed to us by LNP Governments.

The report also underscored the reality of neo-liberal society with young workers most affected and older people not so much.

The World Happiness Report also focusses on the WELLBY (Well-Being-Adjusted Life Years) approach in contrast to the Quality-Adjusted Life Years used by health economists.

The report says: “The well-being approach puts a lower value than is customary upon money relative to life.”

This is a message which may seem odd to Australian, UK and US politicians but then they might embrace it if they believe the older you are the more likely you are to vote conservative. However, like the once common assumption that females are more likely to vote conservative, it now appears the phenomenon may no longer apply.

But then Trump, Morrison and Johnson are not conservatives in the traditional sense (well at least in terms of  public protestation rather than behaviour in Trump and Johnson’s cases) but are really the inheritors of the Radical Right tradition.