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Learning from the Happiest Places on Earth

Is there a better way to measure quality of life than happiness? From a personal level it's hard to argue with that line of thought. What makes one place happier than another? Why does it seem like the same handful of countries, cities, and places frequently make "X happiest places in the world" lists year after year or even decade after decade? What can we learn from looking at climate, culture, nature, countries, and what type of lessons can we learn from them to make our own lives better?

These are great questions, and by taking a look at the many different types of places that consistently make the "happiest" lists there are plenty of lessons to be learned that we can use to explore and increase our own happiness.

happiest place Scandinavians Can't Be Beat

The nations known loosely as "Scandinavian" include Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, and they frequently top the list of the world's happiest nations. All of them are almost always top five while all are always top ten, despite living in climates with bitterly cold and dark winters. Finland was the happiest nation of 2018. It was Norway in 2017. Denmark was 2016. Sweden is always somewhere in the mix.

What about these five nations makes them so special? There are several factors that go into it. One stat that gets brought up, especially among Norway, Sweden, Finland, is that few countries in the world have a larger forest to person ratio (and some that do are on the list, like Canada) 1 and forest per square mile of country. The presence of nature is not only important, but each of these nations take a very active role with spending time in nature, even going so far as to make time spent outside a major part of school curriculum at every level.

Iceland has low taxes, great healthcare, and community based social systems to make it through long winters. They also get away from screen time with 10% of residents writing or having written a book, making them the most published and literate nation in the world.

These nations are also known for valuing limited work weeks, a strong social safety net, and high standards of living. All of these affect happiness by removing common stresses and anxieties while focusing on aspects of life such as socializing and community. With solid vacation and time off, in addition to a livable welfare, even unemployed citizens still have the time and ability to travel, socialize, pursue passions, and focus on their own personal happiness.

Who Else is Doing it Right?

Costa Rica happiest place

The fact that Costa Rica manages to consistently make this list is astounding, considering its location and proximity to several unhappy nations. While many developed first world nations committed to social programs and progress tend to make the list, Costa Rica manages to make a place for themselves as many areas of Costa Rica have healthy diets, people focused on community, kindness, and generosity, and a true mastery of work-life balance that leaves plenty of time for the important things in life. 2, 3 Costa Rica is a nation covered in beautiful jungle, with beaches on the coast, and strong community values. Being in touch with faith, family, and nature are cornerstones of daily life, resulting in a very happy people in general.

happiest place Switzerland

The natural beauty of Switzerland is legendary and frankly impossible to miss, even if you're in the middle of their densest cities. Add in a booming economy, strong sense of civic identity, and impressively well kept and clean environment that leads to long life, and it's not hard to see why they are consistently on this list. Switzerland often finds itself dodging around the Scandinavian countries for top rank. 4

Vancouver, Canada happiest place

While Canada also often scores highly on the happiest nations list, the city of Vancouver stands out in particular as consistently being one of the best cities in the world for happiness. 5 A social medicine system to give everyone access to healthcare, a beautiful natural environment that surrounds the city, and well maintained city parks are only a taste of what Vancouver has to offer. Known for its incredibly clean city with many outdoor events, community events, and coffee shops, the city itself seems to encourage mingling and a social sense of community amongst its residents. Add in awesome biking and hiking trails and it's easy to see why so many Vancouver residents are smiling.

happiest place Boulder, Colorado

Consistently coming in as the happiest city in the United States, Boulder residents have lessons that a lot of other places could borrow from. This is a city that, from the officials on down, has concentrated on building an environment that caters to its residents. Some of their major focuses include sustaining their park system, providing direct access to nature activities, focusing on sustainable urban development, and improving the community’s quality of life. The natural beauty of the mountains certainly helps and per capita more people in the city of Boulder walk to work than anywhere in the United States. Low rates of obesity and high rates of exercise work together to create a pretty happy American city. 6

Ikaria, Greece happiest place

Ikaria, or "The Island Where People Forget To Die,” is renowned because over one third of its residents live past the age of ninety, and most show a level of dexterity and health uncommon in people decades younger in many other countries. Their natural diet is extremely healthy, and people are incredibly active with walking many miles a day. The shared sense of community is very notable here. Residents stay busy, meet each other by chance, rarely setting appointments, and many talk about doing what they love and loving what they do. Many residents credit that passion for life as the reason so many residents live for so long on this unconventional island. 7

happiest place Creating Happiness within Your Own Space

Having now taken a closer look at some of the world’s happiest places, there are a few obvious steps that can be taken to create happy spaces wherever you find yourself. Though geographical features may play into the happiness of a particular group of people, it is important to remember that many of these countries implement policies that could be recreated almost anywhere.

Community is Important in Order to Thrive

The common thread of cold climates making the happiest list isn't lost on anyone, and scientists have often wondered how places in such harsh environments could so often lead to happy populations. While there's no definitive answer at this point, one popular theory is community. In places that are used to long and harsh winters, people are more likely to look out for one another, know their neighbors, and foster a sense of community. This creates cultures where socializing and looking after one another's welfare is part of everyday life. Sharing a mutual responsibility to care for one another creates the perfect environment for improving happiness.

This sense of community is often missing from cities that are in constant good weather or heat and as this study 8 points out, many of the happiest cities in the U.S. are in cold climate areas, whereas many of the least happy are in consistently warm temperatures. Though it cannot be stated exactly why this is, it can be speculated that because colder temperatures tend to bring people together into homes and private spaces, this allows for a deeper understanding of the people living in such close proximity to one another.

Connection with Nature Is a Must

While many of the happiest areas have a clear connection with nature as a major part of the happiness formula, we can look at a culture that was once known for happiness and closeness but now struggles with stress and discontent at record levels to confirm this. Japan is a nation that understands commitment and loyalty and the culture was long built on a strong family structure, but modernization led to many problems that came along with economic success.

Understanding the importance of all-around health, the search for a balance to modern hectic life resulted in the birth of forest bathing, one of the most stark examples of nature therapy. 9, 10

The practice of forest bathing includes going out into the woods, breathing deeply, and really reconnecting with the natural world to get away from the stress and anxiety of constructed environments, like cities. Studies have shown that this practice isn't just a placebo effect - there are clear, positive physical benefits from forest bathing such as a boosted immune system, reduced stress, better sleep , and a reported sharp increase in happiness. 11

This information adds to the idea of the importance that terpenes have when it comes to individual happiness. The term “terpenes” refers to strings of molecules found naturally in many different plants, herbs, and trees in the wild that give the individual plants their scent and make-up. It is the role of the terpenes to decide how the plant or tree or herb will interact with the world around it. 12 Since essential oils and herbal medicines come from nature, it makes sense that the same molecular ingredients that can help make these effective treatments will also permeate the air where they grow, thrive, die, and re-grow again with the seasons. This could play a major part in why forest bathing is so effective as a natural treatment.

Happiness Comes from Careful Planning

Perhaps the strongest lesson we can learn from the one common thread that all these places have is this: happiness does not happen by accident. Whether an entire country built on a sense of local community, a willingness to build the strongest social safety net in the world, a culture built with a focus on friendliness, or cities built on decades' long plans for creating a better living space for all, happiness comes from planning and taking actions on those plans.

These are lessons not just for cities or countries looking to emulate those results, but it is a lesson for all individuals looking at happiness. Plan, focus on things you can control or create, and make a commitment to do it, and hopefully happiness will come from effort.

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