Thriving In The Pandemic: Lessons From The World Happiness Study

One of the biggest topics I talk with HR leaders about is the massive culture shift taking place in business. CEOs are becoming Chief Empathy Officers; companies are asking employees to take sick days and vacation; it’s now ok to work at home and spend time with your children; and wellbeing and health have taken center stage at work. 

What have we really learned?  A lot. Let me share a little more.

This week I re-read the 2020 World Happiness Report, a comprehensive study of happiness around the world. And it teaches us some important lessons about what drives human behavior, and what you learn is that money and GDP are not as important as you think. Let me explain.

Understanding The Happiness Study

This study surveys tens of thousands of people in more than 150 countries, asking them to rate happiness on a scale of 1-10. It then breaks down drivers into six categories:

  1. Wealth: GDP per capita
  2. Health: Life expectancy for each person
  3. Social Support: do you have friends you can rely on?
  4. Freedom: are you satisfied with your freedom to pursue the life you want?
  5. Corruption: is corruption widespread in government?
  6. Generosity: have you donated to a charity in the last month?

Which of these matters the most? Well in a somewhat surprising result, by far the #1 driver of happiness is social support: the sense of community, relationships, and friends we have in life. This dimension is 6.3 times more important than wealth. 

The second most important factor is freedom. This is not political freedom, but rather freedom to pursue your life. So this means financial freedom, job and career opportunities, and a legal framework that enables you to move, grow and live the life you choose. This factor, which we also call Agency, is 3.6 more important than wealth.

And the third most important is Trust, defined as freedom from corruption in our systems, politics, and society about 70% more important than money. 

World happiness report

Where Are We In The US?

The United States, which ranked 19th in overall happiness, is rated far below many countries in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and even Costa Rica. And our happiness is dropping fast. In the last two years, according to this study, US happiness dropped by 2.7% (a pretty big number) making us 113th out of 150 countries in change. We are on a bad trend.

world happiness report

Trust: A Vital Element, But At An All-Time Low

Trust is a huge factor in happiness. When you have a sense of trust, you can thrive in uncertainty and rapid change. Well as I’ve discussed in prior articles, trust in our political system is at an all time low, forcing business leaders to fill the gap. In fact, as this research points out, employers are now the most trusted institutions in our lives.

Consider a study recently released by the Pew Research Institute. As of April of last year, only 3% of Americans believe the government does the right thing and only 14% think government does the right thing “most of the time.”

This means that 83% of Americans believe the government “does not do the right thing most of the time.”


If you compare the United States to Finland (the happiest country in the study), we are 11% less happy despite the fact that we make more money. Our social relationships are 4.2% lower, our sense of freedom is 11.2% lower, and sense of corruption (mistrust in the “system”) is 258% worse. These are complex and difficult problems to address.

(My wife’s family is from Finland, and I can tell you it truly is a happy place! There, 91% of citizens trust the President and 86% trust the police.)

What Does This Teach Us About Response To The Pandemic

The simple message from this research can be summarized in three points.

First, we must focus on relationships, care, and communication. This dimension of happiness, which is by far the most powerful, can be dramatically enhanced through the pandemic. How? By reflecting on the fact that we are all in this together: we are all worried about our health, families, jobs, and lifestyle. Wearing a mask is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of care (wearing a mask protects others, who in turn will protect you).

Politicians clearly do not understand this right now, and to me this is the biggest disappointment I have in our elected representatives today. But that put aside, we in the business community can (and are) focus our energy on communication, listening, and bringing people together – and that alone will help our companies transform. I call this CEO as Chief Empathy Officer, and this effect is taking hold in almost every business I speak with.

Second, organizations must institutionalize a sense of trust. As I’ve discussed in prior articles, Trust is a combination of competence (doing the right things well), ethics (maintaining fairness and honesty), and listening (constantly being open to feedback and advice). These topics are high on business leaders’ priority lists and there is now little tolerance for mistakes. As we reopen our offices, plants, and stores we create a sense of trust.. if we do people will come back and feel safe.

Third, we must give people a sense of  flexibility, freedom, or agency.  This does not mean waving the American Flag, but rather giving people true agency.  (Agency is a faddish word now, meaning the ability for someone to act as a free agent – decide and carry out actions based on your own information.) In a sense, this factor means “freedom to take control of your life” – which means giving people enough money to live, flexibility to work where and when is best, and freedom to come (or not come) to the office if it feels safe.

In HR we actually spend a lot of time on this topic.  Agency is the goal of diversity and inclusion programs, pay equity programs, wellbeing programs, and all other forms of empowerment and employee listening. Now, more than ever, we need to respect the stress people feel, and give them freedom to act.

Removing Worry From The System

The final point I want to make is the topic of Worry, which comes up a lot in my conversations with HR leaders. Companies tell me employees want us to “remove ambiguity” and let them “get back to their jobs.”

Well right now this just isn’t possible: we don’t know enough about the virus to make everything clear. So people have a tendency to worry.

Worry is also discussed in the World Happiness Report. Take a look. As you can see, we are all more worried these days, and a little more sad and angry as well. In fact the study states that “worry” in general has gone up 8-10% in the last nine years.

worry, sadness, anger

What the researchers conclude is that “removing worry” has a big impact on happiness too. This means reducing threats, giving people a sense of safety, and essentially taking care of the bottom part of Maszlow’s Hierarchy (safety). 

How do we do this at work? Give people a sense of calm; remind them that they won’t get laid off if they get sick; make sure work practices are inclusive and fair; and assure people that the company will keep the workplace clean, and you as an employee will be taken care of. And you have to prove this with stories, not just posters on the wall.

My final point: remember the power of optimism. We in the business world must project a sense of growth, transformation, and opportunity from this crisis. And this will remove worry and help people perform at their best. Listen to my podcast on resilience to learn more.

Happiness is a big topic: it gives us the resilience, energy, and creativity to move ahead. Learning from The World Happiness Report, remember our focus on relationships, agency, and trust. These core values, coupled with a dose of optimism, will help us thrive through this crisis.

Already companies are telling me their businesses have improved: let’s make sure these lessons are learned for years to come.