Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

It might seem strange to write about Happiness in the midst of a pandemic. Blame the United Nations! Since 2013 it has celebrated the International Day of Happiness as a way of recognising the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. It is particularly relevant at the time of Covid-19. This year World Happiness Day took place on 20th March. Happiness and well-being are seen as universal goals and aspirations for human beings around the world and should be recognised in public policy objectives. This initiative at the UN came originally from Bhutan, a country which recognized the value of national happiness over national income since the early 1970s and famously adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.

World Happiness Report 2021

World Happiness Day is followed by the publication of the World Happiness Report. It is a publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, powered by data from the Gallup World Poll and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, that provided access to the World Risk Poll. The 2021 Report includes data from the ICL-YouGov Behaviour Tracker as part of the COVID Data Hub from the Institute of Global Health Innovation.

This year’s report runs to over 200 pages. It looks at the effects of COVID-19 on happiness and how countries have differed in their success in reducing the deaths and maintaining connected and healthy societies. The effects of the pandemic on happiness, mental health, social connections, and the workplace are also covered.

This blog focuses on the chapter that deals with ‘Happiness, Trust and Deaths under Covid-19’. The objective of the chapter is to measure and use subjective well-being to track and explain the quality of lives all over the globe. The report produces a ranking of countries from around the world. The individual country rankings come from the Gallup World Poll surveys. They are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a TEN (10), and the worst possible life being a ZERO (0).

How is Ireland Performing?

Table 1 shows that Ireland has performed relatively well, with a Cantril score of 7.035 in 2020. This is slightly lower than the 7.094 score for 2017-2019. However, even with the slight drop in the Cantril score, Ireland recorded a higher position in the international league; moving from 14th place (in 2017-2019) to 13th place in 2020.

[fusion_table fusion_table_type=”1″ fusion_table_rows=”” fusion_table_columns=”” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”left” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_offset=””]

Table 1:

Ireland’s Happiness Ranking





Cantril Score*7.0947.035-0.06
International Ranking14131

*Cantril score goes from 0 (worst) up to 10 (best). Source: World Happiness Report 2021, United Nations


Nordic countries scored highest on the Cantril ladder in 2020– Finland (7.889); Iceland (7.575) and Denmark (7.515). At the bottom the ladder, in 2020, were Tanzania (3.786) and Zambia (3.16).

In a separate analysis, the World Bank combined the 2020 data with that from 2018 and 2019 to produce what it calls the ‘Official 2021 World Happiness Report Ranking’. Each country in evaluated according to seven variables. They are:

  • Gross Domestic Product
  • Social Support
  • Health life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • Perceptions of corruption
  • “Dystopia”

It is important to note that “Dystopia” is an imaginary country that has the world’s least-happy people. “Dystopia” is introduced into the analysis so as to have a benchmark against which all countries can be favourably compared in terms of each of the six key variables, thus allowing each sub-bar to be of positive (or zero, in six instances) width. The lowest scores observed for the six key variables, therefore, characterize “Dystopia”.

Table 2 shows that Ireland recorded a score of 7.084 and 15th place in the international ranking. Finland was in first place in the international ranking and had a score of 7.482, as can be seen from the table.

[fusion_table fusion_table_type=”1″ fusion_table_rows=”” fusion_table_columns=”” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”left” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_offset=””]

Table 2 – World Happiness Report Ranking 2021 

Gross Domestic Product1.6441.446
Social Support1.0921.106
Health Life Expectancy0.7530.741
Freedom to make life choices0.6060.691
Perceptions of Corruption0.3670.481
Total score7.0847.842
International Ranking15th1st

Source: World Happiness Report 2021, United Nations


Life under Covid-19

The United Nations have done a valuable service in taking stock of a world suffering in the midst of a pandemic. Millions of lives have been lost, and billions of others shaken to their core. The World Happiness Report notes that;

“Although there were significant increases in average sadness and worry, we found that overall life evaluations, and happiness rankings, were surprising stable. The top countries before the pandemic remained the top countries in 2020, so there is little change in the overall rankings. The top countries already had higher levels of trust and lower levels of inequality, both of which helped them to keep death rates low and social cohesion high, and hence to maintain their favourable positions.”

But we cannot become complacent. The world will have to continue with greater economic insecurity, anxiety, stress, challenges to mental and physical health and an overall disruption of every aspect of daily life for some time to come. Zoom will have to continue to be a substitute for face-to-face contacts in many circumstances. At the individual level, there are courses and webinars that can be taken to improve one’s mental health.

PAI are delivering a new Wellbeing Webinar Series that reviews a variety of strategies for wellbeing in these challenging times. The series will explore the topic of understanding how to be more aware of our own mental health and will offer tools to help us adopt positive ways of coping better with our personal and professional lives.

It is important that we all continue to respond positively to the socialising rules that governments put in place. An end game, without Covid-19, can become a reality, if the vaccine rollout steadily increases and if people continue to adhere to mask mandates and physical distancing. We can always check the product of our efforts when the next edition of the World Happiness Report is published.

Tom Ferris is a Consultant Economist specialising in Better Regulation. He lectures on a number of PAI courses and blogs regularly for PAI. He was formerly the Senior Economist at the Department of Transport.