March 20 marked the third annual International Day of Happiness – a global initiative started by the United Nations that celebrates happiness around our big blue planet.
But does it matter where you live when it comes to happiness? Although mindset plays a crucial role (according to Abraham Lincoln, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”), certain countries seem to have a bigger piece of the happiness pie. Sure, a quality healthcare system, advanced schooling options and other factors that come with a prosperous economy may contribute, but countless studies substantiate that happiness isn’t a direct result of any of them. It can help, but so does your approach to life.
There’s No One Thing That Makes People Happy
The World Happiness Report 2013 found Denmark to be the happiest countryin the world, followed by Norwayat number two, then Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden. Although these five Scandinavian countries are renowned for their booming economies, the report also took life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices and perceptions of corruption when ranking the pursuit of happiness.
Another global study focusing on sustainable wellbeing, the Happy Planet Index, found Costa Rica to be the happiest country in the world in their most recent ranking in 2012. According to its researchers, the Happy Planet Index ‘measures what matters’ – life expectancy, level of wellbeing experienced and ecological footprint. Unsurprisingly, the different measures used to evaluate happiness (compared to the World Happiness Report) consequently yielded different results, making it practically impossible to pinpoint the exact source of a country’s – or its peoples’ – happiness. What we can do, however, is take note of what the nations that rank high in happiness do and learn from them.
The focus for the International Day of Happiness this year was connection, and the importance of community can’t be stressed enough when it comes to happiness. Denmark has a population of just over 5.5 million, but the residents know how to stay connected and encourage connectivity throughout the whole year – particularly during the cold winters when morale dips.
The Danish have a word for this – hygge. It actually comes from the Norwegian word meaning wellbeing and is difficult to directly translate to English. Essentially, hygge is a closeness between people. In winter it could mean the warm glow of millions of candles, all lit by different people as a sign of togetherness. In summer it could be anything from barbeques to street festivals. And hygge is always friends and family. This holistic approach to staying connected with one another is perhaps one of the key reasons Denmark is considered to be the happiest nation in the world.
Staying in touch with friends and family is also one of the top five regrets of dying people, so it makes sense to make it a focus now. Meaningful relationships and a sense of community are crucial factors in leading happy lives.
Latin America is also dominating in the happiness stakes. According to the 2013 Gallup World Poll, the South American continent is home to nine of the world’s 10 happiest countries. Paraguay led the world in positive emotions – ranking number one on the Global Positive Experience Index for the third year running – with Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador rounding out the top five. The report says the reported happiness levels of Latin American countries “at least partly reflects the cultural tendency in the region to focus on the positives in life”. More proof that being grateful and focusing on what you have, rather than what you have not, is the key to achieving optimal health and wellness.
Despite the old adage that money can’t buy happiness, results from the Gallup World Poll would suggest that perhaps, in fact, it can. The report found that people who make more money tend to report higher positive emotions, but also noted a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a higher income can improve a person’s overall happiness, but only up to $75,000 – above which income makes much less of a difference.
While money was a factor in Gallop’s poll, other research conducted by the Harvard Business Review has shown that even in poor countries like India and Uganda – where many people are struggling to meet their basic needs – individuals who reflected on giving to others were happier than those who reflected on spending on themselves. What’s more, spending even a few dollars on someone else can trigger a boost in happiness. In one study, HBR found that asking people to spend as little as $5 on someone else over the course of a day made them happier at the end of that day than people who spent the $5 on themselves.
Freedom Of Choice
Apart from being the second happiest country in the world, according to World Happiness Report, 95 per cent of Norwegians who were surveyed for the 2014 Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index of the world’s happiest countries said they were happy with their level of freedom to choose the direction of their lives. Although freedom of choice might be something we are used to in Australia, the significance of being able to study a subject that inspires you, work in a role that challenges you, or change your mind at the height of your career is huge. There are plenty of studies that show free people are happy people, and the act of simply acknowledging that and being thankful for it can, too, increase happiness.
Laughter therapy dates back thousand of years. Some trace it back to India, others say a holy Chinese man named Hotei walked from village to village laughing until the others joined in. Wherever it started, laughter is considered to make humans happier and healthier, and laughing often and laughing loudly is one of the simplest ways to surge that happy feeling.
Fijians have this one down pat. In fact, according to the 2014 WIN/Gallup International poll of 64,000 people, a whopping 93 per cent of Fijians consider themselves happy, making Fiji officially the happiest country. Although Fiji is considered to be a developing nation and most residents live a fairly simple life, money isn’t the be all and end all. For Fijians, spending quality time with family and friends and sharing laughs is more important than owning a flash car or the latest Apple gizmo. On a basic level, laughter improves your mood and can in turn improve the mood of others. It really is as simple as that.
The Danes have the work-life ratio balanced with office hours falling strictly between 8am and 4pm. Working overtime is not expected, and is even frowned upon in most cases. It’s no surprise, then, that according to the 2014 Eurobarometer survey, Denmark has the happiest workforce in the European Union. It’s not just about a work-life balance, achieving equilibrium across all aspects of life equals time to follow passions, enjoy hobbies and spend more time engaging with and feeling connected to those close to you.
A meta-analysis from the Rotman Research Institute found that 100 hours per year (around two hours per week) is the optimum time we should dedicate to helping others. Frankly, helping others (regardless of timings) has been proven to make you happy (and enrich other lives in the process). Whether volunteering time, donating money or utilising skills to assist those in need, the act of helping someone else makes you more socially connected and can aid with warding off loneliness and depression.
Africans are known for their hospitality and volunteering is second nature to them. While we might schedule in time to visit a lonely elderly lady or work at a volunteer food van, helping the elderly and feeding the homeless is just what they do instinctively. It’s ingrained in African culture to help others and is simply a part of life. And guess what? According to the WIN/Gallap survey, as a region, 83 per cent of Africans are happy (compared with just 26 per cent of people in Western Europe).
Closer To Home
When it comes to happiness on home soil, Australians, it seems, are a happy lot. Our island continent topped the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Better Life Index, which ranks developed nations based on how satisfied residents are with their lives. Low unemployment rates, a strong economy, high living standards and access to quality education were some of the factors contributing to high happiness indicators in Australia, but it was our strong sense of community and high levels of civic pride that put us at the top of the contentment list. According to the report, 93 per cent of Aussie participants said they had someone they could rely on in time of need – which is higher than the OECD average of 89 per cent – and voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 93 per cent during recent elections. This figure is the highest in the OECD, where the average is 72 per cent. Add to that our quality of life, laid- back attitude and growing cities, which rank as some of the most liveable in the world, and you have yourself some very happy little Vegemites.
The Side Effects Of Happiness
People define happiness very differently, but essentially, happiness comes down to how you feel on a day-to-day basis and how happy you feel in the long term when evaluating your life. One thing that does remain constant is that happy people live longer, are healthier and are perceived to be more productive. Some studies go as far as to say that happy people earn more money and are considered to be better citizens. So wherever you live, even if there isn’t a study saying you live in one of the happiest countries in the world,
you can work on being a happier person and consequently boost the mood of others.