Happiest Countries in the World (and What Makes Them So Happy)
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes its annual World Happiness Report, which highlights the world's happiest countries based on studies of environments, social environments, environmental quality and sustainable development in cities and rural areas around the world.
Each year, Nordic nations top the list, making these folks the happiest in the world.
But what is the secret to happiness exactly? Read on to learn what brings the most joy to citizens from the happiest countries — and how you can replicate it in your own hometown.
15. Costa Rica
Costa Rica's happiness should come as no surprise, with its tropical rainforests and sandy beaches lining both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. As a popular ex-pat destination for its sustainability practices, Costa Rica is all about living off the land, below your means and "pura vida."
The pura vida philosophy, similar to "no worries," is the way of life for natives and newcomers alike.
Costa Rica: Lesson Learned
Try living your life without worries, and simply enjoy the gift of every day as they do in Costa Rica. Constant worry can take a toll on your health, with headaches, ulcers, muscle tension and insomnia being just a few of the symptoms.
Many in Costa Rica are fans of yoga and mindful meditation, in which you focus on your breathing and become what the Mayo Clinic describes as "intensively aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment."
Israel's most cosmopolitan city, the Mediterranean Sea-facing Tel Aviv, landed on the World's Happiest cities for the first time — at No. 8 — and is one of two cities in the top 10 that wasn't a Nordic city. Jerusalem also made the cut at No. 33.
The Jewish and Arabic people have called this state home for more than 3,700 years, and as three-quarters of the population follows Judaism and 17 percent Muslim, perhaps faith is what brings happiness to its inhabitants.
Israel: Lesson Learned
Scientists have studied faith for years, including how it impacts health. People who believe in a higher power, participate in religious ceremonies and experience spirituality have shown time again to have a better health quality of life, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Faith has helped people recover from illness as well as have better coping skills and more happiness in their lives.
13. United Kingdom
The people of the United Kingdom, made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have had a bit more pep in their step as of late. The united country climbed two places on the World's Happiest Report.
For the U.K., its cities are a real booster, especially for students. One study found students gain life satisfaction in urban settings, much attributed to more opportunities.
United Kingdom: Lesson Learned
Students are onto something. Not only does higher education lead to jobs that may offer more money and benefits that can attribute to a better quality of life but, as the American Academy of Family Physicians points out, can also contribute to a healthier diet and safer environment.
But you don't need to enroll in a college or university to feel the benefits. Brain-stimulating activities have also been found to ward off dementia.
Known for being an island continent filled with happy people, Australia surprisingly fell out of the top 10 in 2019 and then dropped again in 2020. Sydney and Melbourne have become some of the most expensive cities in the world, which could be causing some distress to its residents, not to mention the horrible wildfires that raged at the start of 2020.
Still, Aussies are notoriously laidback and love nature, which keeps them smiling year after year.
Australia: Lesson Learned
Being laidback is something that doesn't require a beach. By being more laidback, one can slow down and reduce anxiety.
How can you do this? Psychology Today suggests focusing on your wants, not your shoulds, learning to say no and to delegate and being proactive rather than reactive, among other actions.
It may surprise you to learn how many happy countries are found in cold-weather climates that touch upon the Arctic with Nordic ties. Scandinavia will appear on this list again and again along with Canada, which is considerably happier than its American neighbor.
The reason for this is simple: good health, a stable economy, strong social ties and, as another study on happiness found, racial acceptance.
Canada: Lesson Learned
Canadians' openness and socialness lead them to volunteer much of their time. For example, nearly half the population over 15 — 13.3 million people — gave 2.07 billion hours of their time to volunteering in 2010.
Volunteering isn't just good for others. Those who volunteer have been found to have better physical health than those who don't and provides more life satisfaction, self-esteem and mental health. It also decreases social isolation and slower cognitive decline, according to studies.
Luxembourg's happiness is on the rise, jumping five places from its 2018 spot. This, as the World Happiness Report notes, is the highest it has landed since the index began in 2009.
Luxembourg is the richest (and smallest) country on this list. Perhaps having more money in their pockets helps alleviate stress and provides financial freedom that stokes the happiness of the residents.
Luxembourg: Lesson Learned
While not everyone can be rich just because they want to, there is something to be said for being financially secure. With this comes less stress and worry, so taking more control of your personal finance could lead to more happiness in your own life.
A recent study out of the University of Arizona found millennials who saved more and spent less were actually happier than those who did the opposite, finding the savers had better overall well-being, less stress, financial satisfaction and less depression.
Begin by creating a budget to see where there are any shortfalls and overspending, live within your means, and begin saving for emergencies and things you want out of life — including a dream vacation reminiscent of the ones seen on Bravo "reality" shows.
Austria's high life expectancy contributed to its landing in the top 10 happiest countries, even above the sun- and sand-filled Australia. Women in the country average 84 years while men average 79, and 99.9 percent of the people have healthcare to take care of themselves.
So healthy are its people, the country only used 15.1 percent of its federal spending on healthcare in 2015.
Austria: Lesson Learned
It's easy to be fit in a country nestled into the Alps. With mountains surrounding them at every turn, the people of Austria enjoy hiking in the warm months and skiing in the winter. In its valleys, bike trails are common, with the River Danube Cycle Trail being one of Europe's most popular cycling trails.
By now you should already know the importance of daily exercise. Physical activity delivers much-needed oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and improves heart and lung function, builds muscle strength and shoots off chemicals that induce happiness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
8. New Zealand
The only non-European country featured in the top 10 happiest countries in the world is New Zealand. And it isn't just because they live in an island paradise that prides itself on working on sustainable solutions and an active outdoor lifestyle. Even the people in its more rural areas are happier.
For Kiwis, social support is one of the main reasons it ranks so high for happiness.
New Zealand: Lesson Learned
The Maori people of New Zealand use words "hoa" and "kare" for friend. Having good friends is such a positive influence on health that a 2010 study found close relationships chopped the risk of premature death from all causes in half!
If you feel your social circle has diminished as you have aged, it's not too late to rebuild your circle. Joining clubs filled with like-minded people can open your world to more friends and increase not only your well-being but your happiness.
For Swedes, time off to spend with their loved ones and doing what they enjoy is so akin to the society that it is even evident in its work-life relationships.
Three-week vacations are common, with employers providing an average 25 paid days off each year. Having a baby? Mom can have nine months paid leave, and dad can have three months.
Of course, this comes at a price: The Swedish taxes average more than 50 percent of income. Still, that money is repaid in free education, healthcare and retirement, so citizens don't have to stress when they are out having a good time.
Sweden: Lesson Learned
Having that work-life balance does the body good, yet so many don't take a vacation or use their vacation time. Nearly half of Americans don't, and the country has earned the nickname of "no vacation nation" due to its lack of required days off for paid vacation or holidays.
Yet studies show vacations from work reduce stress and anxiety, which in turn can lower the risk of a heart attack. Scientists have found taking time off improves life satisfaction, physical health, mental health and productivity.
So, go ahead and take a day off!
6. The Netherlands
For the Dutch, happiness stems from the quality of life provided in a homeland that is considered one of the most stable in the world.
The World Happiness Report found having lower population per hectare correlated to lower well-being, but the tight-knit community of the Netherlands bucks that trend with more happiness found in rural areas than its cities.
The Netherlands: Lesson Learned
Dutch children are found to be particularly happy, and this may be because playtime and socialization are encouraged. Homework is limited to give kids a break when they aren't in school, where 95 percent of kids four and older are enrolled and 63 percent of 2.5- to 3-year-olds participate in playgroups.
The takeaway? Playtime is good for your happiness as well as your health. Play not only promotes healthy development in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adults can benefit from the release of endorphins that relieve pain, reduce stress and improve brain function.
All five of the happiest nations are Nordic, beginning with Norway, which held the top honor in 2017.
In this country hugging the North Sea, it is third in the world for life satisfaction, social support and freedom for its people, meaning the happiness found here comes from a well-led free life. Bergen and Oslo are so filled with healthy, happy people that the cities ranked in the top 7.
Norway: Lesson Learned
Norwegians have a special word: koselig, which doesn't have a translation in English. This special word could almost be described as a zen-like coziness and focuses on decreasing stress and finding a sense of calm.
This practice is extremely good for your health and happiness, lowering cortisol levels that contribute to anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, irritability, poor sleep and weight gain.
Koselig does this through an emphasis on nature. To try to find this level of calm, leave your phone behind and get outdoors for the simple sake of letting it surround you and being aware of your surroundings.
Not only is Iceland haloed in the happiness bubble of Nordic bliss, but when it comes to life satisfaction, Iceland's people are also the third-most satisfied in the world.
Life satisfaction is a combination of work and personal satisfaction, which includes relationships, romance, health and wellness, and the people of Iceland have an abundance of them all.
Iceland: Lesson Learned
Positive Psychology defines happiness as an "immediate, in-the-moment experience" and life satisfaction as "more stable, broader and long-lived." To find this, it is recommended one tries new things to break out of routines, especially with other people.
On the remote island, trying new things in the Icelandic involves outdoor adventures. Hiking glaciers, scuba diving in a trench that divides two continents, caving and river rafting takes them beyond their comfort zone for new experiences.
As one of the 10 richest countries in the world, the landlocked European nation is also rich in happiness. The country of Alpine mountains and glacial lakes ranks nearly as high as Nordic nations in GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom, generosity and corruption — all so high that it leaves its people feeling utterly satisfied with their Swiss lives.
Even in its cities, the Swedes are a happy bunch. Stockholm (9) and Zurich (4) both ranked in the top 10 for well-being.
Switzerland: Lesson Learned
They say money can't buy happiness, but it doesn't hurt. Although Switzerland is a wealthy county, its people enjoy spending time in the mountains, which doesn't require anything more than a good pair of hiking boots and a canteen full of water. The Swiss take to their environment winter and summer, truly enjoying the beautiful country in which they live.
Head for the hills as the Swiss do, and benefit from the boost of feel-good endorphins that exercise, fresh air and sunshine will deliver. Hiking has been found to exercise the mind as well as the body, increases creativity and strengthens relationships.
For the Danish, money doesn't matter. Even those considered poor find much more happiness than those in the same wealth group in other nations. In Denmark, it's not about keeping up with the Joneses.
Denmark was No. 1 in happiness in 2012, 2013 and 2016, but its citizens were actually surprised by the ranking. Little did they know they were so "happy." Of the top 10 global cities that have the best well-being, two are found in Denmark: Copenhagen (5) and Aarhus (2).
Denmark: Lesson Learned
To live a life of contentment to the point you don't even realize how happy you are truly is a gift. Finding peace with your surroundings, enjoying the simple things, practicing gratitude and living in the moment are ways to cultivate contentment.
Psychology Today defines contentment not as ecstatic happiness but instead feeling OK with the ways things are. Try keeping a gratitude journal, and write down the things you are thankful for every day; it will remind you that even on bad days there is a silver lining.
Of the five Nordic countries found in the top 10, Finland has consecutively earned the No. 1 place since 2018. While the average life expectancy around the world is 64.2, the people of the country bordering Sweden and Russia live nearly eight years longer, with high levels of freedom, social support and, yes, money.
Is this due to the winters where the sun shines for less than six hours a day (some areas in total darkness!)? Or the way the Fins enjoy their lives whether the sun shines or not?
Finland: Lesson Learned
Before the pandemic, much of the world wasn't familiar with spending so much time in lockdown with family, but one of the keys to happiness for the Fins is all the quality time they have with loved ones — sometimes the only thing to truly enjoy during six months of darkness.
The Mayo Clinic finds socialization increases our feelings of well-being, safety and happiness. To be your most happy, make time to spend with loved ones.