Lessons From the World’s Happiest Countries

Eric Weiner, an author of books: Man Seeks God and The Geography of Bliss, shares some of his insights with you. Here are some answers about happier countries.

Q: Is the idea of happiness that we hold in North America universal or is happiness perceived differently around the world?

A: It varies from place to place. Every country has a concept of happiness, and every language has at least one word for happiness. In Asia, happiness is defined in more communal terms. In North American, particularly in the United States, it’s in more individualistic terms. In some places, like Bhutan, happiness is more relational – it’s about the quantity and quality of personal relationships.

Q: As a foreign correspondent, you’ve spent a lot of time in very unhappy places. What made those places so unhappy?

A: There are a few things that happy places have in common, and those are things that the unhappy places lack. First, where there is a lot of trust – of other people and institutions – people tend to be happier. In Moldova, which is statistically the least happy place in the world, people are mistrustful of even their neighbors. It’s also a place that’s rife with envy, which is another hallmark of an unhappy place. Second, strong cultural identity, like in Iceland, was common to happy places. Third, money plays a role but it’s more your relationship to money than how much money you have. Switzerland, for example, is a wealthy country that has a healthy attitude toward money. Qatar is a wealthy country that acquired its wealth so quickly that it hasn’t quite adjusted to it. Also, the poorest countries in the world tend to be the least happy, and as they get wealthier they get happier – up to a certain point.

Q: Was there a correlation between the places you most enjoyed being and the level of happiness?

A: I can tell you that it’s not a lot of fun being in the least happy cities. I thought maybe I would feel better about myself because I was theoretically happier than all of those grumpy Moldovans, but it actually dropped me down a couple of notches. I like places that are happy in unusual ways. The Swiss consistently come out in the top five of happiest people, and it took me a while to come to terms with that because I find the Swiss a bit bland. Their flavor of happiness is kind of an absence of misery. Iceland is a more raucous form of happiness. Bhutan, while not in the top tier of happy countries, actually has a policy of Gross National Happiness. My two favorite countries were Thailand and Iceland precisely because they were so counter to the “normal” idea of happiness.

Q: Did writing the book challenge your idea of what happiness is?

A: Definitely – which was sort of the idea. The idea was not that people should pick up and move to Iceland or India or Thailand or wherever, but there are lessons to be learned from these places – like about trust and envy, ideas about failure, and the ability to stop thinking for a while, as the Thais do. Every country defines and pursues happiness a little bit differently.

Q: So is happiness transferable? If you do pick up and move to Iceland will you be happier?

A: You’d probably make Iceland less happy by diluting your happiness so unhappy people should not move there. There are happiness refugees who move because they’re looking for a better cultural fit. I liken it to transgender people who feel like they were born in the wrong body. Some people really believe they were born in the wrong country.

Q: Did you come away with some universal keys to happiness?

A: Optimism is important. Also, a surplus of trust and a lack of envy. To some extent, a creative spirit. Iceland, for example, publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world and everyone’s in a garage band. Some money, both individually and as a nation, helps. But there’s a pretty low cutoff point – about $15,000 per capita per year – where above that more money does not equal more happiness. The quality and quantity of your relationships are also really important. In Thailand, they have a common expression that translates into “don’t think too much.” I found that helpful. Not winning the lottery – as a nation or an individual – is also helpful. Previous studies have shown that people who win the lottery are happier a few months after they won but a few years later they’ve returned to their previous happiness level. We intrinsically overestimate the impact on our happiness of both the good things that happen to us and the bad things that happen to us. Things are neither quite as good or as bad as we think they’ll be.

Q: Did you become happier through the process of writing the book?

A: I think I’m less unhappy. Is that the same thing? I haven’t gone a full 180 degrees, which would have been too Hollywood an ending. But I try to remember some of this stuff when I’m freaking out – like the Thai expression and the need to embrace failure and elevating myself out of my own personal drama and working on relationships.