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Israel climbs to 12th spot in pandemic-focused World Happiness Report

Finland tops UN’s annual survey for fourth successive year; Canada is 14th, the UK 17th, and the US 19th

Medical staff and patients wear masks and wave Israeli flags as an Israeli Air Force aerobatic team flies in formation over the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center, in the northern city of Hadera, April 29, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
Medical staff and patients wear masks and wave Israeli flags as an Israeli Air Force aerobatic team flies in formation over the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center, in the northern city of Hadera, April 29, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel has climbed two spots to 12th in the latest annual World Happiness Report. Canada was 14th, the UK came in 17th, and the US was 19th.

Amid a world-beating vaccination drive, but after three nationwide coronavirus lockdowns and ahead of its fourth national election in two years, Israel improved its position in the annual UN survey. Released Friday, the report this year covered 149 countries, though it only fully surveyed about two-thirds of them because of the pandemic.

Israel had ranked 14th in the 2020 report, down one spot from 13th in 2019.

The 2021 World Happiness Report, released a year after the global coronavirus pandemic started gaining speed worldwide, ranked 149 countries based on gross domestic product per person, healthy life expectancy and the opinions of residents. Surveys asked respondents to indicate on a 1-10 scale how much social support they feel they have if something goes wrong, their freedom to make their own life choices, their sense of how corrupt their society is, and how generous they are.

Due to the pandemic, the surveys were conducted in slightly fewer than 100 countries for this year’s World Happiness Report, the ninth one compiled since the project started. Index rankings for the other nations were based on estimates from past data.

The top 20 countries in the 2021 World Happiness Index (World Happiness Report).

The results from both methods had European countries occupying nine of the top 10 spots on the list of the word’s happiest places, with New Zealand rounding out the group. The top 10 countries are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Austria.

It was the fourth consecutive year that Finland came out on top. The United States, which was at number 13 five years ago, slipped from 18th to 19th place. On a shortened list ranking only those countries fully surveyed this time, the US placed 14th, and Israel placed 11th.

The annual report, produced by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is divided into eight chapters focused on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a section on which countries and regions fared better than others, namely East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

“We need urgently to learn from COVID-19,” said Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report’s co-authors. “The pandemic reminds us of our global environmental threats, the urgent need to cooperate, and the difficulties of achieving cooperation in each country and globally. The World Happiness Report 2021 reminds us that we must aim for wellbeing rather than mere wealth, which will be fleeting indeed if we don’t do a much better job of addressing the challenges of sustainable development.”

In this Friday, April 17, 2020, photo, medical staff test a supermarket employee who volunteered at a pop-up community COVID-19 testing station at a carpark in Christchurch, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Finland’s comparative success in curbing COVID-19 may have contributed to the enduring trust the country’s people have in their government. The country took rapid and extensive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus and has one of Europe’s lowest COVID-19 mortality rates.

“We find year after year that life satisfaction is reported to be happiest in the social democracies of northern Europe,” Sachs said. “People feel secure in those countries, so trust is high. The government is seen to be credible and honest, and trust in each other is high.”

Overall, the index showed little change in happiness levels compared to last year’s report, which was based on information from before the pandemic.

“We asked two kinds of questions. One is about the life in general, life evaluation, we call it. How is your life going? The other is about mood, emotions, stress, anxiety,” Sachs said. “Of course, we’re still in the middle of a deep crisis. But the responses about long-term life evaluation did not change decisively, though the disruption in our lives was so profound.”

Issues that affect the well-being of people living in the United States include racial tensions and growing income inequality between the richest and poorest residents, happiness experts say.

Hospital staff wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat on February 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“As for why the US ranks much lower than other similarly or even less wealthy countries, the answer is straightforward,” said Carol Graham, an expert at The Brookings Institution who was not involved in the report. “The US has larger gaps in happiness rankings between the rich and the poor than do most other wealthy countries.”

Report co-author Sonja Lyubormirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, noted that American culture prizes signs of wealth such as big houses and multiple cars more so than other countries, “and material things don’t make us as happy.”

Conversely, people’s perception that their country was handling the pandemic well contributed to an overall rise in well-being, Sachs said. Several Asian countries fared better than they had in last year’s rankings; China moved to 84th place from 94th last year.

“This has been a difficult period. People are looking past it when they look for the long term. But there are also many people that are suffering in the short run,” he said.

Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen, who was not involved in the report, thinks the Finnish character itself might help explain why the country keeps leading the index.

“I think Finns are pretty kind of content on some level at being just what we are,” he said. “We don’t really have to be more.”

The bottom three countries in this year’s report were Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Afghanistan.

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