What Can We Learn From the 2020 World Happiness Report?


Spending Time In Nature Increases Happiness!

This year the World Happiness Report focused on three environments to learn about and measure happiness around the world: our social, urban, and natural environments.

For the fourth consecutive year, Finland emerged at the world’s happiest country, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Norway, New Zealand and Austria. The USA came in 14th, which was an improvement over prior years. Israel, Australia, and Ireland also came out ahead of the USA. Canada came in 15th. With the exception of New Zealand, the top ten countries are small, homogenous, and northern European.

What does this really mean, given the global pandemic? Although there were increases in sadness and worry, overall life evaluations and happiness rankings remained relatively stable. The people in countries that have more social cohesion, higher levels trust, and lower levels of inequality, are happier. The top countries before the pandemic, remained the top countries during the pandemic.

The top six factors that influence well-being (income, health, someone to count on, freedom, generosity, and trust) remained in place. Given the restrictions, people found different ways to deliver or experience these factors. Working from home took root and may be here to stay. Instead of traveling, people rediscovered activities close to home. Local businesses and communities stepped up and delivered in ways that filled multiple needs. Zoom calls filled in for face-to face gatherings. The genuine goodness of people, looking out for each other, benevolence, and generosity, boomed.

The measure of positive vs. negative emotions plays a large part in this annual report. People in the happiest countries report three times as many positive emotions as negative ones, with laugher and enjoyment being key variables. This is similar to what Barbara Fredrickson reported in her book, Positivity, in 2009. Finding something to be happy about every day is vital to your overall well-being. Worry and sadness increased during 2020, while anger did not. This is understandable.

Interestingly enough, even though there was a pandemic, there was a significant drop in “reported frequency of health problems” which turned out to be concentrated in the 60+ population. Also, there was an increase in people doing something interesting “yesterday,” as well as in the number of people who felt well rested. Spending more time at home is positive.

As it relates to work, losing a job contributed to a 12% drop in life satisfaction for people who experienced the job loss. Maintaining social connections, balancing work and family, and having flexibility are key life satisfaction factors. Resilience, the ability to bounce back after adversity, is also another key factor. Barbara Fredrickson wrote about this as well.

The 2020 report also emphasizes the importance of the natural environment in shaping happiness. The more time you spend in green, natural environments, the better your mental health and the more positive emotions you experience. Studies have also shown that hospital patients have shorter stays when they are exposed to views of natural settings. The same is true for people recovering at home. A view of natural setting speeds healing.

Spending time in nature lowers stress and improves mental and physical health, longevity, and happiness. Open space and public parks are good for the community and good your health. Green, natural environments encourage more physical exercise and social interaction, both in urban and rural areas. Also, the lower levels of air and noise pollution contribute to lower stress and better respiratory and cardiovascular outcomes. And socializing with friends, family, and spouses is one of the strongest determinants of happiness.

Now that spring is here again, make spending more time outdoors a priority.  You and your health will benefit. You might enjoy exploring these outdoor spaces highlighted in a recent New England Home publication. Notice the interaction of each space with its natural environment. Its peaceful and soothing. It’s healing on many levels.

Read or explore the 2020 World Happiness Report.