We’ve all been through a rather gloomy 18 months, so why not bring some sunshine into your life by planning a trip to one of the happiest countries in the world? We ranked the world’s countries by happiness level, using a combination of official happiness report rankings, interviews and first-hand experiences.
Never mind GDP, this Buddhist Himalayan kingdom considers ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’ (GDH) to be equally as important as economic development. Bhutan created the idea of GDH using nine metrics, including Wellbeing, Standard of Living, Education, Community, and Ecological Diversity. The concept is more than just a gimmick—happiness, spirituality and compassion are part of policy-making, and are even enshrined in the constitution.
You may be wondering if creating GDH really does make for happy citizens. Well, according to the country’s happiness census, 91% of Bhutanese feel happy, with 43.4% even describing themselves as ‘deeply happy’.
When you visit, you’ll be able to experience Bhutan’s GDH in many ways. You’ll discover over 70% of the land is protected forests, which have been found to help make you feel happier. If you’re hiking, there’s a strong possibility you’ll be invited into a total stranger’s home or a yak-herder’s tent for a friendly cup of hot tea. And Bhutan’s cultural sites, such as the Tiger’s Nest monastery, which teeters on the edge of the world’s most rugged mountain terrain, are so breathtaking they’re guaranteed to leave you feeling nothing short of euphoric.
Chris Orlikowski, a spokesperson for COMO Hotels, including the Uma Paro and Uma Punakha boutique resorts in Bhutan, tells us: “A lot of guests are drawn to the country for its spirituality, and this includes the GDH concept. Looking after the environment is a big aspect of GDH.”
It’s not only Bhutan that keeps tabs on the happiness of its people. The United Nations uses data from the Gallup World Poll to evaluate the happiness of the entire world and publishes its findings annually in the World Happiness Report. For the fourth consecutive year, Finland has topped the list.
Canadian Journalist and Finnish transplant, Katja Pantzar, explains in her book, The Finnish Way, that a combination of the Finnish concepts such as using movement as ‘medicine’, forest therapy (regularly getting immersed in nature), healthy eating and ‘sisu‘ (a resilient and gritty ‘national spirit’) all contribute towards making Finns feel content.
They are all concepts that you can easily get on board with on your trip to Finland. As the most forested country in Europe, there are hiking, camping and traditional sauna options abound, with the idyllic Jyväskylä (Lakeland Finland) currently trending as a hotspot. Don’t forget to get in on Finnish-style healthy eating, with countless opportunities to try the Nordic diet of fresh fish, berries, mushrooms and whole grains.
And let’s not forget that Rovaniemi, in the Finnish Arctic Circle, is the official home of jolly old Santa Claus, as well as a prime location for spotting the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. That certainly makes for more than enough merriment for travelers of all ages.
The Caribbean island of Curaçao could be one of the happiest places in the world, not least because of the country’s ‘dushi’ outlook. The Papiamentu word ‘dushi’ means all things sweet and good, and is infused into the soul of Curaçao in a similar way to how the ‘sisu’ spirit is entrenched in Finland.
‘Dushi’ can be used as a term of endearment for everyone, from family members to strangers (similar to how American southerners say ‘darling’, or Brits say ‘my love’). “A day, a feeling, a view, a meal or even a thought can be dushi,” explains Curaçao Tourist Board’s Visitor Information Officer, Tirzah Statia. “Dushi is a way of life. A dushi life means a happy life,” she adds.
Seeing the sweetness in all things certainly seems to give the island a great vibe. Take a self-guided tour of Willemstad on an electric scooter to discover how the residents have adorned their walls with bright colors and street art celebrating nature, people and their multicultural heritage. Look out for models and sculptures of ‘Chichi’ (big sister) dolls, their arms held out as if ready to embrace you. Snorkel with the surprisingly un-shy sea turtles of Playa Piskado. See if Curacao brings out the ‘dushi’ in you.
According to another global happiness index, known as the Happy Planet Index (HPI), Costa Rica is the happiest place to live, and has topped the tables three consecutive times. The HPI measures which nations’ residents are living the happiest, longest and most sustainable lives. They calculate this by using wellbeing data from the Gallup poll, life expectancy and inequality stats from the UN, and ecological footprint from the Global Footprint Network.
Costa Rica has the world’s greatest density of wildlife species, so locals and visitors alike spend a lot of time appreciating its natural wonders (a recurring theme in these happiness polls). Highlights include the Corcovado National Park, home to 140 mammal species including spider monkeys, tapirs, sloths, pumas and even rare jaguars, as well as 463 bird species such as toucans and scarlet macaws.
The government abolished the army in 1948 and redirected the funds to education, health and pensions. This led to Costa Rica developing some of the highest living standards in the region. As such, around 50,000 North Americans live there permanently.
Just ask seasoned digital nomad, Heidi Obermann, why Costa Rica appeals. Heidi tells us: “I’ve lived in many different countries, but for me, the happiest country is Costa Rica. It’s not for nothing that people here greet each other by saying ‘pura vida’ [‘pure life’/’everything’s good’]. There’s a lightness here, and the people respect nature and live in harmony with it.
“Many also don’t watch the news, they live in their own ‘happiness bubble’. I don’t mean in big cities like San Jose, but in the small towns and villages. In one village I lived in for a year, the number one conversation was who had seen a jaguar recently. In the evenings at the bar, they’d proudly show each other photos of the animals they’d photographed instead of grumbling about world events. How beautiful is that.”
The Danish ‘hygge’ concept (feeling of coziness and contentment) may have been already exported commercially to the world in the form of fluffy socks, cinnamon buns and saunas. But the real reason Denmark comes in at number two on the World Happiness Report is more about keeping up healthy daily habits such as walking in the forest, cycling, and foraging for berries. The country’s social safety nets and having the world’s best work-life balance also contribute towards its position. Denmark has a 37-hour work week and full-time workers devote 66% of their day to leisure and personal care.
Why not embrace the Danish way of life by signing up for the free Danish ‘wild food’ app, ‘Vild Mad’. It lets you learn how to connect with nature, try new flavors and discover where your food comes from while foraging in Denmark’s bucolic landscape. The idea was created by famous Danish chef, Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, has just been awarded World’s Best Restaurant, 2021. The info provided in his app on landscapes and ecosystems is something you can also use around the world.
As Redzepi told the WaPo: “Knowing your ABCs in nature, the flora and fauna, the patterns of the landscape and the rhythm of the seasons is as important as learning how to read and write”.
Alternatively, join a guided tour and hunt for mushrooms. Swim, kayak, sail or fish along the 5,440 miles of picturesque coastline and islands. And check out the fairytale towns along the way, such as Ærøskøbing – this popular destination wedding spot is considered the most beautiful town in Denmark.
As the famous Danish-British designer Ilse Crawford writes, “Material goods rarely alter our levels of happiness, unlike emotional experience. Having can never replace being.”
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