Some of these nations handled the pandemic well and some did not. It almost made no difference in how people evaluated their satisfaction with life.


The 2021 edition of the World Happiness Report has specifically explored how some Asian countries such as China and South Korea managed to weather the pandemic better than others in the region and how people’s emotional wellbeing was affected by policy. Their success in containing Covid-19 can be attributed to better civic cooperation in relation to their government responses. These measures included stringent physical distancing and mobility control rules, as well as comprehensive testing, tracing, and isolation policies. By contrast, the weaker strategies put in place by Japan were associated with one of the worst performances on the continent.

Yet certain positive results in battling the spread of the virus—as also proved by the experience of other nations worldwide—did not necessarily translate into significant leaps towards the top positions of the happiness index, the same way poor outcomes did not lead to dramatic drops in the ranking.

2020 brought so much pain and so many challenges to everyone, it is only natural to associate the idea of happiness (or the lack of it) to how small (or big) has been the toll taken by Covid-19 on our lives. However, many are the elements that contribute to determining one’s satisfaction with life, which also explains why the averages of the 149 countries surveyed in the report proved remarkably stable in comparison to before the start of the pandemic.

GDP per capita, social support in times of need, absence of corruption in government, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity or charity towards others: these are the six key variables used by the researchers to evaluate people’s wellbeing. With one clear takeaway: whichever obstacle life throws at us, a balance of all these ingredients is the true recipe for long-term happiness.


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If we look at the GDP per-capita figures, the Philippines is far behind nations like Indonesia, China or Malaysia. If we look at the World Happiness Index, the Philippines are well ahead of all of them.

In truth, Filipinos felt less happy in 2020 than the year before, when they occupied the fifty-second spot in the ranking. Despite the slip-up, this country of about 110 million has shown one of the greatest improvements in the United Nations’ ranking climbing more than 30 positions in less than a decade.

The reason why the Philippines overperforms in comparison to many wealthier nations on the continent seems to be a result of increased income, trust in public institutions and life expectancy. Filipinos also earn excellent scores in the personal connection category—or, as one pundit commented online a while ago, when it comes to the five F’s: family, friends, food, fun and faith.

#4 | JAPAN

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When the pandemic hit, the World Happiness Report notes, the Japanese government did not implement mobility control measures such as lockdowns due to certain constitutional limitations. Subsequent amendments to the law made it possible to declare a “state of emergency,” but most recommendations remained voluntary rather than mandatory. Testing too has not been extensive, but only targeted to people with potential symptoms. The result has been soaring cases and deaths, along with the economy shrinking in 2020 by 4.8%, the first contraction since 2009.

“Japan is as happy as it feels—miserable,” was a headline a few years ago published by The Japan Times. That was perhaps an exaggeration, but that there are reasons for concern is not in doubt: the country is increasingly unequal, the population aging rapidly, and the government—to confront a sudden surge in suicides—has recently appointed its first “minister of loneliness.”

Nonetheless, Japan has gained six spots in the happiness index from the previous edition of the report. Not only that, on a scale from 1 to 10, taken into account all the six variables that contribute to happiness, its citizens rated their satisfaction with life at about 6, the highest since 2015. How to we explain that? Apparently, not even the Japanese could. 


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Last year Thailand has been roiled by anti-government demonstrations, a ruinous country-wide drought, and the pandemic-induced collapse of the tourism sector. Despite all of that, the country’s happiness global ranking remained unchanged at 54th place.

Healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices and interpersonal relations: these are the categories where Thailand tends to perform well even during a global pandemic.


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Singapore is one of the ultra-rich countries of the world, why isn’t ultra-happy too then? Ranking in second place in Asia and 32nd worldwide is nothing to complain about, yet there are much poorer nations scoring far higher on the happiness index.

The old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness might be tired and overused, but an overwhelming number of studies has proved it true time and time again. In the World Happiness Report, Singapore does indeed do very well when it comes to income, institutional trust and healthy life expectancy too, but not so great in the categories of generosity towards others and strength of social support. Personal relationships, and not money, are the real superchargers of happiness.


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Taiwan got used to scoring high in the World Happiness Report when it comes to GDP per capita, life expectancy and social support—the latter being a reflection of a society where multigenerational families often live together and community is valued over individuality.

Taiwan has also done an impressive job in stopping the pandemic on its tracks from the onset, and never went into lockdown. This success helped the country gain one spot in the ranking from last year (to 24), bringing it a little closer—when we consider the entire Asia-Pacific region—to New Zealand and Australia, in the spots number nine and 11 of the global ranking index, respectively. 

Yet, not everything is blissful on this island of about 24 million: Taiwan has been independent since 1949, but China views it as a breakaway province. In recent years, Beijing stepped up its military activities and flew warplanes near the island, heightening fears that it will try to recover control over its former territory.

Happiest Countries in Asia


Global Rank


Regional Rank



24 1 Taiwan
32 2 Singapore
54 3 Thailand
56 4 Japan
61 5 Philippines
62 6 South Korea
70 7 Mongolia
77 8 Hong Kong S.A.R. of China
79 9 Vietnam
81 10 Malaysia
84 11 Indonesia
87 12 China
89 13 Nepal
100 14 Maldives
105 15 Laos
114 16 Bangladesh
126 17 Pakistan
129 18 Cambodia
139 19 Myanmar
149 20 Sri Lanka
121 21 India
122 22 Afghanistan
Source: The UN’s 2021 World Happiness Report.