These Are the World’s Happiest Places

What do Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore have in common? Their people feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy. Here’s how they do it.

This story appears in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Who is the world’s happiest person?

It may be Alejandro Zúñiga, a healthy, middle-aged father who socializes at least six hours a day and has a few good friends he can count on. He sleeps at least seven hours most nights, walks to work, and eats six servings of fruits and vegetables most days. He works no more than 40 hours a week at a job he loves with co-workers he enjoys. He spends a few hours every week volunteering; on the weekends he worships God and indulges his passion for soccer. In short he makes daily choices that favor happiness, choices made easier because he lives among like-minded people in the verdant, temperate Central Valley of Costa Rica.

Sidse Clemmensen is another possible candidate. With a loving partner and three young children, she lives in a tightly knit cohousing community with other families who share chores, childcare, and meals in a communal kitchen. She’s a sociologist, a job that challenges and engages her every day. She and her family bicycle to work, the store, and the children’s school, which helps keep them fit. She pays high taxes on her modest salary but gets health care and education for her family, as well as guaranteed retirement income. In Aalborg, Denmark, where she lives, people feel confident the government will make sure that nothing too bad happens to them.

And then there is Douglas Foo. A successful entrepreneur, he drives a $750,000 BMW and lives in a $10 million house. He’s married, with four well-behaved children who excel at school. He put himself through school working four jobs and started a company that eventually grew into a $59 million multinational enterprise. He works about 60 hours a week between his business and his philanthropic pursuits. He’s earned the respect of his employees, peers, and the larger community. He’s worked hard to achieve his success, but as Foo readily admits, he probably couldn’t have created this life anywhere other than Singapore.

Zúñiga, Clemmensen, and Foo illustrate three different strands of happiness that braid together in complementary ways to create lasting joy. I call them pleasure, purpose, and pride. They also live in countries that encourage those strands. By meeting each of these people and exploring their home countries, we’ll discover the secrets to what makes the people in these places so much happier than those in other places.

Consider Zúñiga, who like many Costa Ricans enjoys the pleasure of living daily life to the fullest in a place that mitigates stress and maximizes joy. Scientists call his type of happiness experienced happiness or positive affect. Surveys measure it by asking people how often they smiled, laughed, or felt joy during the past 24 hours. His country is not only Latin America’s happiest; it’s also where people report feeling more day-to-day positive emotions than just about any other place in the world.

Clemmensen represents a brand of happiness typified in the purpose-driven life of Danes. Like all forms of happiness, it assumes basic needs are covered so that people can pursue their passions at work and leisure. Academics refer to this as eudaimonic happiness, a term that comes from the ancient Greek word for “happy.” The concept was made popular by Aristotle, who believed that true happiness came only from a life of meaning—of doing what was worth doing. Gallup measures this by asking respondents whether they “learned or did something interesting yesterday.” In Denmark, a country that has most consistently topped Europe’s happiness rankings for the past 40 years, society has evolved to make it easy to live an interesting life.

And true to Singapore’s reputation for having a semi-fanatical drive for success, Foo—with all his ambition and accomplishments—represents the “life satisfaction” strand of happiness. Social scientists often measure this type of happiness by asking people to rate their lives on a scale of zero to 10. Experts also call this evaluative happiness. Internationally it’s considered the gold standard metric of well-being. Singapore has most dependably ranked number one in Asia for life satisfaction.

The researchers who publish the annual World Happiness Report found that about three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. These factors don’t materialize by chance; they are intimately related to a country’s government and its cultural values. In other words the happiest places incubate happiness for their people.

To illustrate the power of place, John Helliwell, one of the report’s editors, analyzed 500,000 surveys completed by immigrants who’d moved to Canada from 100 countries over the previous 40 years, many from countries considerably less happy. Remarkably Helliwell and his colleagues discovered that, within a few years of arriving, immigrants who came from unhappy places began to report the increased happiness level of their adoptive home. Seemingly their environment alone accounted for their increased happiness.

Zúñiga, Clemmensen, and Foo pursue their goals intensely, but not at the expense of joy and laughter, and they look with pride on what they are doing and what they have already accomplished. They’re able to do this, in many cases, because the places where they live—their nations, communities, neighborhoods, and family households—give them an invisible lift, constantly nudging them into behaviors that favor long-term well-being.

Costa Rica: Feeling Joy Every Day—Health, Faith, Family

Let’s return to Alejandro Zúñiga, who works as a produce vendor at the central market in Cartago, a city just east of San José, Costa Rica’s capital. For decades the husky 57-year-old has been a fixture at the market, showing up day after day to sell avocados, socialize, and try out new jokes. Everyone there knows him. Whenever any of the five dozen or so other vendors falls ill or has a family emergency, it’s usually Zúñiga who takes up a collection to help. He organizes weekend trips to cheer on the city’s beloved but often hapless soccer team, C.S. Cartaginés. He’s a charismatic friend and a natural leader.

One night a few years ago, Zúñiga got a call from a friend with exciting news. “You’ve won the lottery!” he shouted.

Zúñiga had bought the winning ticket and was about to receive 50 million colones (then about $93,000). But Zúñiga didn’t believe his friend, a well-known practical joker. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood. It had been a long day, and he hadn’t sold all of his avocados. “I thought it was an ugly joke,” he recalled. “I was down to my last eight dollars.”

He hung up on his friend.

When Zúñiga showed up for work the next day, the vendors erupted in applause. News of his winning had spread. Each week he bet on the same number; this time his number had come up.

Giddy, Zúñiga strode past the produce stalls with an alpha male’s long-armed lope and high-fived his friends and colleagues. They knew that Zúñiga had never had it easy. He’d grown up in shantytowns, quit school at 12 to earn a living, struggled with alcohol, and lost the love of his life at age 20 when she left him.

Now that he’d struck it rich, his fellow vendors assumed they’d lose him to a new, more affluent life. But in the weeks after his win, Zúñiga surprised his friends by returning to the market, hawking his produce and playing practical jokes. Quietly, though, he was giving away his fortune: a million colones to the friend who’d sold him the lottery ticket, a million to a food-stall owner who’d fed him in lean times, and another million to a market beggar he knew. The rest he gave to his mother and to the four mothers of his seven children. Within a year he was broke again.

And yet, he insisted, “I couldn’t be happier.”

To understand Zúñiga’s resilience, you need to know more about Costa Rica, where an alchemy of geography and social policies has created a powerful blend of family bonds, universal health care, faith, lasting peace, equality, and—a quality that Zúñiga possesses in spades—generosity. This all culminates in an especially rich recipe for enjoying life day by day—the pleasure strand of happiness. Here this combination—all statistically associated with well-being—delivers more happiness per GDP dollar than just about anywhere else.

Consider Zúñiga’s situation. Although he has no car, no expensive jewelry, no fine clothes or big electronics, he doesn’t need any of those things for happiness or a sense of self-esteem. He lives in a country that, for most of the past century, has believed in supporting every citizen. Unlike most of Central America, where land barons and the military-backed presidents who served their interests dominated after independence, Costa Rica took a different path. With rugged, ravine-etched mountain ranges and a lack of cheap indigenous labor, conditions there discouraged the rise of large haciendas. Instead small-property owners and independent-minded Central Valley farmers thrived after discovering an international market for coffee. Costa Ricans elected teachers as presidents, who, unencumbered by corrosive colonial institutions, introduced policies that launched an upward spiral of well-being and thus the environment for the Latin American character to thrive.

In 1869 Costa Rican law made primary school mandatory for every child, including, notably, girls. By 1930 the literacy rate was among the highest in Latin America. At the same time, the nation invested in supplying clean water for rural villages, stemming deadly childhood illnesses, such as cholera and diarrhea, and ensuring that children’s lives got off to a healthy start. The 1940s brought the beginnings of social security and an end to the army. By 1961 came legislation on universal health care, leading to free primary care clinics in most villages.

And that commitment continues today. On a crisp winter morning not long ago, I followed a medical technician named Ileana Álvarez Chaves as she toted a backpack and a small cooler of vaccines on her rounds through the leafy Central Valley town of Paraíso. She works with Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud (EBAIS), the national system that was set up in the mid-1990s to support the health of every Costa Rican. (Health and happiness are inextricably linked.)

Small teams including a doctor, a nurse, a recordkeeper, and several technicians are assigned the care of about 3,500 people. Álvarez Chaves’s quota called for her to visit as many as a dozen homes a day. At each one she’d spend 30 minutes to update medical histories, take blood pressures, give vaccinations, dispense advice, and check for standing water (where Zika virus–bearing mosquitoes breed).

At the Hernández Torres home, Álvarez Chaves counseled a young mother on a healthy diet for her two-year-old son and left behind vitamins and antiparasitic pills. As she walked through the house, she noted the white bread and milk on the kitchen table. “Try to eat more beans, fruits, and vegetables,” she advised. At the home of 89-year-old Aurora Brenes, Álvarez Chaves inventoried medicines, took blood pressure readings, and set up an appointment for Brenes with her team’s doctor. “I can often catch diseases before they erupt into full-blown diabetes or a heart attack,” she said. “Many of my clients are lonely, and they just appreciate someone who cares.”

Since 1970 Costa Rica has seen life expectancy jump from 66 years to 80 years and infant mortality drop by a factor of seven. The death rate from heart disease for men is about a third less than that in the United States, even though Costa Rica spends one-tenth as much per capita on health care as the United States. As former president José María Figueres, who implemented the EBAIS program, told me, the nation’s health care system works so well because it aims to keep people healthy in the first place. “In the U.S., incentives are aligned to drive up costs,” he said. “Here for years the emphasis has been on the preventive health system because, quite frankly, the objective of a good health policy is for people not to get sick.”

In short Costa Rica’s social system takes care of most people’s needs, said Mariano Rojas, a Costa Rican economist and happiness expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City. “It leaves them feeling safe, comparatively healthy, free of most of life’s biggest worries, while providing an environment where most people can still make a living.”

Denmark: With Basic Needs Covered, Pursuing Passions is Easier.

In Costa Rica an alchemy of geography and smart social policies has created a powerful blend of family bonds, universal health care, faith, peace, equality, and generosity.

In similar ways Denmark supports the well-being of people like Sidse Clemmensen. I met her on my third trip to Denmark to explore that nation’s unique brand of happiness—one that seems to enable people to live a purposeful life better than anywhere else. Sitting in her kitchen sipping tea, the 35-year-old working mother with short brown hair wore a sleeveless blouse, Moroccan slippers, and a diamond stud in her nose.

“The state provides me with everything I need,” Clemmensen said. “My children are happy. I have a great husband. And I love my job. I know that nothing too bad can happen to me.”

Clemmensen and her family are one of 22 households in a shared housing community called a bofællesskab in the city of Aalborg. Each family owns a small Lego-like house, but together they share a huge garden, laundry room, workshop, storage area, parking facility, and dining hall, where they can opt in to communal meals. (Each family cooks one or two meals a month for the whole community and then eats the rest of its meals free.) Perched on a low hill overlooking rolling pastures, the complex is within biking distance of the neighborhood elementary school and the university.

In Scandinavian fashion the cohousing complex offers an elegant mix of private and public, an apt metaphor for Danish society as a whole, with its emphasis on trust and community. Denmark’s societal evolution may be traced to the Second Schleswig War, in 1864, said Peter Gundelach, a sociologist at the University of Copenhagen, when Denmark lost a quarter of its territory to Prussia. “With that defeat we lost our ambition to be a world superpower,” he said. “It humbled us. Our government began to strengthen our national identity and build inwardly instead.”

Danes grow up believing they have the right to health care, education, and a financial safety net. University students draw a government stipend in addition to free tuition. New parents can take a yearlong government-paid parental leave at nearly full salary; this includes gay and lesbian parents. People work hard in Denmark, but on average less than 40 hours a week, with at least five weeks of vacation a year. The price for such lavish benefits is one of the world’s highest income tax rates, which starts at 41 percent and tops out at 56 percent—a field leveler that makes it possible for a garbageman to earn more than a doctor.

A Cuban immigrant, embracing the Danish passion for socializing, dances with his daughter, who is half Danish, on a lawn near a swimming area in Copenhagen that is a popular gathering place. The Danish people have typically welcomed immigrants, although the recent refugee crisis has somewhat dampened that enthusiasm.
A Cuban immigrant, embracing the Danish passion for socializing, dances with his daughter, who is half Danish, on a lawn near a swimming area in Copenhagen that is a popular gathering place. The Danish people have typically welcomed immigrants, although the recent refugee crisis has somewhat dampened that enthusiasm.
Photograph by Cory Richards

“Danish happiness is closely tied to their notion of tryghed, the snuggled, tucked-in feeling that begins with a mother’s love and extends to the relationship Danes have with their government,” said Jonathan Schwartz, an American anthropologist based in Copenhagen. “The system doesn’t so much ensure happiness as it keeps people from doing what will make them unhappy.”

Setting aside time for self-fulfillment is another key ingredient of Danish happiness. More than 90 percent of Danes belong to a club or an association—from cold-water swimmers to rabbit breeders—and more than 40 percent volunteer for civic groups. Danish society, it seems, encourages the kind of balance between engaging work and rewarding play that results in a sense of time described as flow. “The Danes seem more aware of the total needs of a person than most other places,” said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University in California. “People need to be challenged. It’s in our genes. We develop self-confidence through adversity. They’re the building blocks to happiness.”

Singapore: A Clear, Safe Path Leads to Success.

Singapore has developed its own approach to happiness, as personified by Douglas Foo. I first met Foo when I visited Singapore in 2008. He had a reputation for being hugely successful, community minded, consummately principled, and irrepressibly affable. But his clearest expression of happiness, I discovered, was neither his expensive sports car nor his trophy case of business awards. It was his laugh: a widemouthed, back-tilted howl of joy.

Foo runs Sakae Sushi, Singapore’s largest chain of quick-service sushi restaurants, but he still finds time to volunteer for 22 organizations. During his 14-hour workdays he wears tailored blue suits and presides over a dozen meetings with a mix of earnest ceremony, careful consideration, baritone decisiveness, and pandemic humor. His gift for defusing tension with spontaneous laughter coupled with a herculean work capacity has earned him all the trappings of Singaporean success. And while Foo will tell you he’s happy, he still feels he hasn’t yet arrived.

“In the scope of things I’m just an insect,” he said with a grave expression on his round face. Then, realizing his own hyperbole, he cracked up.

Foo, 48, is at an age that straddles the desperate-to-survive generation that founded Singapore in the 1960s and the 20-somethings who will marshal in a new future. In just over half a century, the 30-mile-long nation has transformed itself from a large fishing village into a country of 5.8 million people living amid thousands of high-rises and more than 150 shopping malls, a metropolis graced by tidy, tree-lined streets.

Success for Singaporeans lies at the end of a well-defined path: Follow the rules, get into the right school, land the right job, and happiness is yours. (It’s traditionally summed up as the five C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership.) In a system that aspires to be a meritocracy, talent and performance are rewarded, in theory. You’ll hear Singaporeans complain about rising prices and their overworked lives, but almost all of them say they feel safe and trust one another.

The architect of this social experiment was the late Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore’s independence movement in 1965. Overwhelmingly loved by Singaporeans, he famously endorsed strict laws and corporal punishment for violent crimes.

With a keen appreciation for traditional Asian values, Lee set out to build a society based on harmony, respect, and hard work. Anyone who made an effort to work, no matter how lowly the job, was guaranteed a livable wage. His “workfare” program supplemented low salaries with housing and health care subsidies.

Although the population is largely composed of Chinese (74.3 percent), Malays (13.4 percent), and Indians (9.1 percent), Lee’s government retained English as a lingua franca to help ensure no ethnicity would have the upper hand. He guaranteed religious freedom and equal education for all, and he subsidized homeownership. Most Singaporeans own a flat in government-developed housing, usually a high-rise unit. By law such buildings must reflect the ethnic diversity of the country—so Singapore has no racial or ethnic ghettos.

As a result the people of Singapore today exemplify the third strand of happiness—what experts call life satisfaction. You score high when you’re living your values and are proud of what you’ve accomplished. You tend to be financially secure, have a high degree of status, and feel a sense of belonging. To achieve this type of happiness can take years, and it often comes at the expense of enjoying moment-to-moment daily pleasures.

Where is the happiest place in the United States?

Singapore’s story, like those of Costa Rica and Denmark, illustrates how a relatively small (about six million people), prosperous nation can achieve a high level of well-being when guided by enlightened leaders. And yet what works for such societies might not easily translate into solutions for a sprawling, diverse, argumentative, freedom-loving nation like the United States. Could such a tumultuous place, with its racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and political diversity, learn anything useful from Denmark’s wealthy, relatively homogeneous, consensus-seeking social democracy? Likewise, could the United States really emulate the day-to-day joy of Costa Rica? Or the values-driven security of Singapore?

There’s reason to think so—if a community like Boulder, Colorado, is any indication. If Americans want to feel more joy in their lives, pursue their purpose more rewardingly, and find greater satisfaction in achieving their goals, they could listen to the citizens of Boulder talk about how to shape their community to support, rather than hinder, their collective happiness. Indeed, since the U.S. isn’t one of the top 10 happiest places, it might do well to look to local bright spots to inform national policy.

That’s what I learned from Ruth Wright, an 88-year-old citizen activist, one chilly spring afternoon as we strolled down Pearl Street, the city’s main pedestrian mall. It was two o’clock on a workday, and a hard mountain sun was beating down on the brick pavement. Men in puffy down jackets huddled in conversation, dreadlocked students tapped on computers at outdoor cafés, and only a few people in office-friendly plaids seemed to be moving with any destination in mind.

Decades ago, when the City Council decided to allow high-rise buildings downtown that would have interfered with the mountain view, Wright led a successful campaign to ensure no building would cut Boulderites off from nature. It was the beginning of a career of questioning the unquestioned virtue of development. Her public service led her to the state legislature, where she represented much of Boulder for 14 years, with a stint as minority leader.

As we passed through the historic section of downtown, Wright frowned at a new glass-and-brick structure, occupied by eco-chic outdoor-clothing boutiques and organic foodie emporiums, whose presence she found jarring. At the next intersection she gestured toward the end of Pearl Street. “My life’s work has been in preserving that,” she said, pointing to where the pine-dotted Rocky Mountains towered majestically over the rooftops.

As stunning as the setting is, Boulder’s appeal is more than just skin-deep. Besides being a college town, an adventure destination, and a haven for elite athletes, it produces the highest level of well-being for its residents. “People there live better lives than residents of any other city for which we have results,” said Dan Witters, a research director at Gallup, which since 2008 has surveyed more than 2.5 million people in American communities.

Witters created the Gallup–National Geographic Index, designed to assess 18 of the most important indicators of well-being. His analysis included obesity rates, absence of pain, feelings of safety and security, whether people use their strengths and accomplish their goals, and whether they learn something interesting daily. He even included dentist visits, which, counterintuitively perhaps, are strongly associated with happiness. Among 190 U.S. metropolitan areas, Boulder came out on top. (Charleston, West Virginia, had the lowest scores.)

Boulder’s quality of life might not have turned out as well if it weren’t for people like Wright. During the late 1960s developers approached the city for approval to build some high-rises. Wright feared they would destroy the character of her community—a place where downtown high-tech workers can take a nature hike during their lunch hour. In 1971, a few months after the council adopted a plan to allow buildings as high as 14 stories, she championed a ballot measure that limited building heights to five stories. “Had I lost, Boulder would be a forest of high-rises crisscrossed by traffic-jammed streets,” she said. “Here in Boulder we had a jewel to preserve.”

In the decades since, the community has diligently protected its quality of life. Boulder taxpayers have voted for 300 miles of bike routes that web the city, and yellow lights blink at crosswalks, reminding motorists that pedestrians have the right-of-way. As a result Boulder residents bike to work at one of the highest rates in the nation—17 times more than the national average. This makes for cleaner air, fewer accidents, and fewer overweight people.

A progressive food policy has also helped. The city matches the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollar for dollar to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. Last year Boulder became one of the nation’s first cities to approve a soda tax aimed at reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Officials plan to use the revenue from the soda tax to fund health programs for children.

Still, change continues to threaten Boulder’s way of life. The civic-minded hippie generation that spawned companies such as Celestial Seasonings herbal-tea company and WhiteWave health food company are now giving way to Google and tech venture capital firms. A highly paid, more driven culture is replacing the laid-back, outdoorsy one. For all of its list-topping well-being scores, Boulder has curiously high levels of stress. “It’s not Zen Boulder anymore,” Witters said. On any given day 49 percent of people surveyed in Boulder report feeling stress, higher than the national average. “But it’s productive stress,” he added.

Ruth Wright has felt that stress too, but in a good way, she said. On the last day we met, she arrived brandishing a newspaper with the headline “Boulder extends height limit.” Two nights earlier she’d testified at a six-hour City Council meeting to fend off developers, joining a majority of speakers who urged that a moratorium on buildings higher than 40 feet continue for at least 15 more months. The council voted eight to one for the extension. Wright had prevailed again. When I pointed out that her life didn’t seem to include much day-to-day joy, she corrected me. “For me fun is getting things done,” she said.

And there, in a nutshell, was the Boulder brand of happiness: a community of fit, successful, mission-driven people with a clear vision of the good life, even if they don’t completely live it yet. Pleasure, purpose, pride—the three strands of happiness.

Photographers Cory Richards and Matthieu Paley are frequent National Geographic contributors. In shooting this story, Richards said, he realized that while happiness comes and goes, contentment allows us to accept those fluctuations. And Paley said he was reminded that we need to make time every day to socialize with our families and friends.

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