What began as a roving conversation about the role of happiness in policy among a group of visiting academics (which I was lucky to be a part of) in Bhutan in 2010 has become a widely used tool that tracks the emotional “temperature” of societies around the world (and individual life satisfaction)—every year. Citizens in 162 countries can explore where their country ranks and the driving factors. Released one year after the COVID-19 lockdowns began, the 2021 World Happiness Report encompasses a monumental year in terms of happiness.

While the findings of the report are wide-ranging, three lessons stand out for improving societal well-being—and sustainable economies—going forward.

  1. Mental health has declined—especially among the most vulnerable While the pandemic was an unprecedented hit to mental well-being worldwide, populations that were already vulnerable—in terms of preexisting conditions, loneliness, and precarious jobs or living situations—were hit the hardest.
  2. Greater trust in others and institutions is linked to higher well-being People who trusted others fared better than those who did not (there is an issue of causality of course, as happier people are also more likely to trust others).
  3. Worker well-being is linked to labor market protections and social safety nets Countries with more efficient and expansive labor market protections and social safety nets experienced lower well-being losses. The U.S. again scores poorly on this front, with its fragmented and relatively meager safety nets for those who are out of work.

Read the full article about the 2021 World Happiness Report by Carol Graham at Brookings.