In today’s world, cruelty is hard to ignore. It sometimes feels like everywhere we turn, there are political shouting matches, shootings, and war.
And those events are certainly taking place. But at the same time, according to the World Happiness Report 2023, people around the world are experiencing more kindness, help, and support from others in their daily lives.
The crises of the last few years, in other words, have not made us reclusive and hard-hearted—but instead more willing to help each other navigate our challenges.
World happiness in 2022
The World Happiness Report draws from the annual Gallup World Poll, which surveys around 1,000 people per country in nearly 200 countries. The happiest countries are ranked according to residents’ average life satisfaction: how they would evaluate their life as a whole on a scale of 0–10, from the worst possible to the best possible. This year, the United States climbed from #16 to #15 in the world, just below Canada (#13) and Australia (#12). Here is the list of the 10 happiest countries:
Surprisingly, global happiness hasn’t decreased during the pandemic or across the spate of crises in 2022, from war to inflation to climate-related natural disasters. Life satisfaction did dip slightly in Western industrial countries, but it rose slightly everywhere else. If you compare 2017–2019 to 2020–2022, the report found, there wasn’t much change.
“Global happiness has remained [remarkably resilient] throughout the pandemic,” write John F. Helliwell and his coauthors.
Why didn’t the pandemic cause widespread unhappiness around the world? It’s possible that things would look different if Gallup had made sure to reach the populations hit hardest by it: nursing home residents, the homeless, prisoners, or burned-out parents and health care workers. At the same time, we seem to have survived by leaning on each other more.
Having someone to count on in life—which about 80% of the world does—was even more important for our happiness these past few years than before COVID-19 struck. And increases in kindness throughout the world have helped protect people’s well-being.
A pandemic of kindness
The World Happiness Report typically looks at three clues to kindness and benevolence: whether people helped a stranger, donated, or volunteered in the past month.
By those indications, we are a kinder society today than we were in 2019. Helping, donating, and volunteering all rose worldwide in 2020, surged to record levels in 2021, and were still up about a quarter in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic. As Helliwell and his coauthors write:
Trust and cooperative social norms . . . demonstrate to people the extent to which others are prepared to do benevolent acts for them and for the community in general. Since this sometimes comes as a surprise, there is a happiness bonus when people get a chance to see the goodness of others in action, and to be of service themselves.
For example, in 2022, more of the population in each country had recently helped a stranger (an average of over 13% more), donated (over 6% more), and volunteered (over 4% more). Countries where benevolence was previously less common, like those in Eastern Europe, saw the greatest gains in kindness and helping. In the U.S., the percentage of those who had recently helped a stranger went up from about 64% in 2019 to about 76% in 2022.
This same surge of kindness spread in Ukraine, after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Last year, more people had recently donated money (70%, up from 22% in 2019), helped strangers (78%, up from 32%), and volunteered (37%, up from 7%).
It’s not all good news in this year’s report. Happiness inequality—the gap between the top half of the population and the bottom half in terms of their life satisfaction—continues to increase. This gap is also widening in terms of how worried, angry, and sad people are feeling.
The reverse is true for kindness, though. Previously, there was more of a gap in how kind the happier and unhappier people in each country were—but over time, that gap has narrowed.
“It seems promising to us that . . . people from across the happiness distribution have engaged in more benevolent behaviors in times of crisis,” says Max Norton, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and one of the coauthors of the report. The only question now is whether this trend in goodness will continue.