Finland ranked ‘happiest country in the world’, with SA 76th

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
  • Finland is the happiest place on earth – according to the latest World Happiness Report 
  • This is the fourth consecutive year the country has been ranked number 1
  • South Africa improved from 78th to 76th place, while Zimbabwe was ranked as the least happy country in the world

If it’s at all possible to achieve a perfect country, it seems, at least on paper, that Finland is as close as it gets. For the fourth consecutive year, the Nordic country with 5.5 million people topped a list of 95 countries evaluated on the happiness and wellbeing of their inhabitants.

This is according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which publishes an annual report, called the World Happiness Report. The 2021 report is the ninth one and was authored by six researchers.

The report uses data from interviews of more than 350 000 people in 95 countries, conducted by the polling company Gallup. Instead of basing the rankings on factors such as  income, they are based on how the countries' people rate their own happiness on a 10-point scale.

“We believe that these subjective, or self-perceived evaluations are a more reliable way to tell how good life is,” Shun Wang, professor of the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in South Korea, and one of the authors of the report, told The New York Times.

Trust linked to happiness

Respondents were asked to answer questions such as:

  • Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  • Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
  • Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?

Trust and the ability to count on others, especially in crises, was also a key factor that contributed to a higher life-evaluation score, reported the authors.

“To feel that your lost wallet would be returned if found by a police officer, by a neighbour, or a stranger, is estimated to be more important for happiness than income, unemployment, and major health risks,” they wrote.

Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, social support, freedom to make life choices, and perception of corruption levels were some of the categories included in the poll to explain most of the differences in happiness between countries.

A surprising finding, Wang said, was that certain parts of Eastern Europe ranked relatively low on the list, despite having quite good income levels. On the other hand, the reverse was true for countries like South America, where happiness levels were higher, despite relatively low income levels.

Increase in negative emotions

There was also a "significantly higher frequency of negative emotions" in just over a third of the countries, which was likely due to the effects of the Covid pandemic, the authors said.

Not being able to work has also had a negative impact on people’s well-being, they added, and noted that unemployment during the pandemic was associated with a 12% decline in life satisfaction and a 9% increase in negative affect.

“There have been greater economic insecurity, anxiety, disruption of every aspect of life, and, for many people, stress and challenges to mental and physical health,” they wrote.

What’s the secret behind Finland's ranking?

Antti Kauppinen, a philosophy professor at the University of Helsinki, told The Times that everybody in Finland has access to good education, and that income and wealth differences are relatively small.

David Pfister, an architect from Austria who lives in Helsinki, also told The Times that “the basic things are in order”.

Indeed, the country’s education system is regarded as one of the most successful systems in the world, notes The Washington Post. Finns also have access to good universal healthcare – a Global Burden of Disease study published in 2018 found that the country had one of the best healthcare systems globally.

And it was one of the countries least affected by the pandemic: Finland has experienced just over 70 000 Covid cases and 805 deaths, according to statistics by Johns Hopkins University.

Top 10, and least happy country

Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, and Austria make up the top 10 happiest countries. The US ranked at number 14, with Canada following closely at number 13.

The UK fell from 13th place in the 2017–2019 surveys to 17th, while South Africa went up from 78th to 76th place. Iran, Turkey, and Zambia followed SA’s rankings. Zimbabwe was deemed as the least happy country, according to the survey results. 

READ | OPINION | Handshakes and hugs are good for you – it’s vital they make a comeback after the pandemic

READ | Psychologists find a key reason for 'Zoom fatigue' and why women are more susceptible

WATCH | How pandemic routines benefit your brain

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.