Acts of benevolence rise amid COVID-19, boosting happiness - UN

Israel ranks highest in the MENA region happiness scale, while conflict in Afghanistan, financial crisis in Lebanon put them at the bottom of the list.

 COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increases in acts of benevolence, which are thought to increase people’s overall happiness. Happiness is low, however, in countries that experience violent conflict and extreme poverty. These are key findings of this year’s World Happiness Report, published the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network on March 18.

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Marking its 10th anniversary, the 2022 World Happiness Report examines factors that tend to lead to greater happiness, and measures happiness in 146 countries and territories around the world, giving each one a happiness score based on six key variables: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. These are scored mainly based on the results of a Gallup World Poll, which asks respondents core questions in 14 areas: business & economic, citizen engagement, communications & technology, diversity (social issues), education & families, emotions (well-being), environment & energy, food & shelter, government and politics, law & order (safety), health, religion & ethics, transportation, and work.

The World Happiness Report for 2022 put special emphasis on the far-ranging effects of COVID-19 on happiness. The team of researchers examined how life under COVID-19 has changed for people in different circumstances and found that the pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence.

“COVID-19 is the biggest health crisis we’ve seen in more than a century,” said Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, one of the lead researchers behind the report. “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.”

According to the report, “A central finding continues to be the extent to which the quality of the social context, especially the extent to which people trust their governments and have trust in the benevolence of others, supports their happiness before, during, and likely after the pandemic.”

''Happiness is a diffucult concept to define'' (credit: TNS)''Happiness is a diffucult concept to define'' (credit: TNS)

Trust in government and the benevolence of others not only correlates with happiness but also with a reduced death toll from the disease. “Countries where people trusted their governments and each other experienced lower COVID-19 death tolls and set the stage for maintaining or rebuilding a sense of common purpose to deliver happier, healthier, and more sustainable lives,” the researchers reported.

Helliwell, added “We found during 2021 remarkable worldwide growth in all three acts of kindness monitored in the Gallup World Poll. Helping strangers, volunteering, and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25% above their pre-pandemic prevalence. 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.”

While trust and acts of kindness correlate with a high degree of happiness, “at the very bottom of the ranking we find societies that suffer from conflict and extreme poverty, notably we find that people in Afghanistan evaluate the quality of their own lives as merely 2.4 out of 10,” notes another lead researcher on the team, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, the director of the Wellbeing Research Center at the University of Oxford. “This presents a stark reminder of the material and immaterial damage that war does to its many victims and the fundamental importance of peace and stability for human wellbeing.”

The 2022 report scores and ranks countries based on average life evaluation scores over a three-year period, 2019-2021.

For the fifth year in a row, Finland takes the top position in the rankings. It is followed by seven additional Northern European countries: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Norway. The top-ranking non-European country on the happiness scale is Israel, which takes the ninth spot. The next country in the Middle East and North Africa region on the list, Bahrain, ranks 21 st overall.

Among the countries where happiness is lowest and declined the most since last year, are two MENA countries: War-torn Afghanistan, where the Taliban took control of the government as US forces withdrew, is ranked 146, the absolute bottom of the list.

Lebanon, amid one of the largest financial crises in modern history, is ranked next to the lowest, at 145th on the list.

The 146 countries scored and ranked in the World Happiness Report include 21 from the MENA region. Data was not available from Djibouti, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, or Syria.