UK slips down global happiness rankings with mental health a 'COVID casualty'

·6-min read
The UK has fallen down the happiness rankings, new research has revealed. (Getty Images)
The UK has fallen down the happiness rankings, new research has revealed. (Getty Images)

The UK has fallen five places on a global list ranking countries by happiness, as the nation grapples with the mental health ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

Happiness isn't necessarily a word we'd associate with the last 12 months and turns out COVID-19 has caused the UK to take something of a hit.

While the annual World Happiness Report found no overall global decline in people’s perceptions of their wellbeing, the UK experienced one of the larger drops in happiness compared to before the pandemic.

In the survey of 156 countries, 26 reported significant increases in life evaluation measures and 20 reported decreases.

Also of note, 42 countries showed a significantly higher frequency of negative emotions and there were nine where this was significantly less frequently reported.

The UK fell to 18th place in the global list – behind Finland, the US and New Zealand among others – and experienced one of the larger drops in happiness compared to before the pandemic.

The authors said mental health has been “one of the greatest casualties” of the pandemic. (Getty Images)
The authors said mental health has been “one of the greatest casualties” of the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Finland defended its title as the world’s happiest country through a year marked by the pandemic.

For the fourth year running, Finland topped the annual list with Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands following in second, third, fourth and fifth position respectively.

Finland has been one of the least affected European countries during the pandemic and the country also scored highly on measures of freedom, healthy lifestyles and social solidarity.

New Zealand was also in the top ten after virtually stamping out transmission of the virus.

The United States moved up from 16th to 14th place and Italy also rose from 28th to 25th. Australia had a slight drop in happiness moving from 11th place to 12th place, according to a table which compared the happiness rankings between 2017-2019 and 2020.

Meanwhile France maintained similar happiness levels only rising one place in the rankings to number 20.

Other notable movements on the list include Germany, which has jumped from 15th to seventh place between 2017-2019 and 2020.

Read more: This is the secret to happiness, according to Harvard scientists

Researchers said the measure for “life evaluation” in the UK fell from 7.16 in 2019 to 6.80 in 2020 – a statistically significant change.

While it may seem like a strange time to be evaluating happiness, the report's authors point out that the modest changes to the overall rankings reflect both the global nature of the pandemic and a “widely-shared resilience”.

“Given how all lives have been so importantly disrupted, it is remarkable that the averages are so stable,” they wrote.

But despite relatively stable results globally, the UK seems to have seen more of a downturn in the happiness stakes.

Watch: Hailey Bieber says getting dressed up in lockdown was good for her mental health.

Dr Mark Williamson, chief executive of Action for Happiness, said: “This has been a tough year for so many of us and the World Happiness Report shows that the UK has suffered more than most when it comes to happiness.

“Policymakers should take this as an opportunity to centre human happiness and wellbeing as we recover from the pandemic so that we can build back happier.

“The report also shows the importance of trust and community benevolence, which really means kindness and doing things for others. Not only do these things make us happier, but when it comes to COVID, they can save lives.”

Despite a slump in sadness, Action for Happiness said there are some potential benefits from the pandemic, including the normalisation of conversations about mental health.

A chapter in the report examined the effects of the first six months of the pandemic on trajectories of mental health in the UK.

The authors, researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said mental health has been “one of the greatest casualties” of the pandemic.

They found that one general measure of mental health in the UK was 8% lower than predicted in the absence of the pandemic.

While this measure has since improved, it remains significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The research also found that a fifth of the population experienced persistently worse mental health during the first six months of the crisis.

Young women were initially worst affected but recovered relatively quickly, while women aged 65 and over saw more persistent deteriorations.

Middle-aged and older men were the least-affected groups.

Read more: Is it really better to have 'loved and lost'? Not according to science

Report authors say women have been particularly impacted in terms of mental health. (Getty Images)
Report authors say women have been particularly impacted in terms of mental health. (Getty Images)

Those with large groups of friends before the pandemic, and those who lost work after April 2020, were more likely to have experienced persistent deteriorations in their mental health.

Xiaowei Xu, a senior research economist at the IFS and an author of the paper, said: “Women and young people are most likely to have suffered persistently bad deteriorations.

“Policymakers should target support at these groups as we come out of the pandemic and start to rebuild.”

Separate research published in the report found that UK workers who lost their jobs or were furloughed and were already lonely became 43% less happy than those who did not already experience loneliness.

The wellbeing of lonely workers was slower to return to normal once they returned to work, according to researchers from the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

Read more: This is how much money you need to earn each year in order to be happy, finds study

Despite the UK falling overall in the happiness rankings, there are pockets in England that may have fared better than others in terms of health and happiness.

Earlier this year researchers revealed the happiest and healthiest places in England, as part of the country’s health index.

The findings, published by the Office for National Statistics and financial services company Lane Clark & Peacock, identified Brent in north-west London as the happiest area, with Wokingham in Berkshire the healthiest.

Health was assessed in three different ways – "healthy people", "healthy lives" and "healthy places".

While the two former factors took into account health outcomes and health-related behaviour, the latter looked at things like air pollution and traffic noise, as well as access to public green space and proximity to sports and leisure facilities.

There are plans for the index to be expanded from England to include all parts of the UK.

The 20 countries topping the World Happiness Report.

1. Finland

2. Iceland

3. Denmark

4. Switzerland

5. Netherlands

6. Sweden

7.Germany

8. Norway

9. New Zealand

10. Austria

11. Israel

12. Australia

13. Ireland

14. United States

15. Canada

16. Czech Republic

17. Belgium

18. United Kingdom

19. Taiwan Province of China

20. France

Additional reporting PA.

Watch: The man who found happiness living off grid.

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