It’s no secret that we, as humans, are obsessed with happiness. Created by a group of independent experts, The World Happiness Report is a survey that rates 156 countries by how happy their citizens are. The report ranks countries on six elements: freedom, generosity, healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support and absence of corruption. In the 2019 report, the UK ranked 15th and Ireland came 16th. To find out why other countries scored so highly, we spoke to the leading experts in happiness, to see what we could learn about boosting our own moods.
As Brits, we love to moan about how a dreary day can affect our mood, so then what do the Finnish, who live in a country where temperatures can regularly hover around -22°C, and which, for the majority of the year, hardly gets any sunlight, have to be happy about? “A look into literature shows that happiness in nations depends not just on the degree of freedom societies allow in their members, but on the degree to which citizens trust each other and on the quality of government within that society,” says Professor Veenhoven, the emeritus professor of social conditions for human happiness. Finland was given the top score for political rights, freedom of expression and religious tolerance. Due to the heavy taxation, the lifestyles of its citizens doesn’t dramatically differ, even if they have different incomes. And, because of its forward-thinking stance regarding gender issues, Finland is widely considered one of the best places in the world to be a mother and a working woman. A move to Helsinki probably isn’t on the cards for a lot of us, so what can we take away from how the Finnish live? For starters, financial security, while certainly a luxury for many, is something we can all endeavour towards by cutting back on our monthly expenditure. In fact, research shows that financial security is about three times as long-lasting and effective as the feeling of buying a new iPhone or a winter coat. But, remember, it’s not all down to you. Agitate for national healthcare, universal education, and a social safety net.
Remember hygge, the cosy trend responsible for the dramatic increase in your scented candle collection and soft furnishings during 2016? It’s not surprising that the Danes have consistently ranked high in the World Happiness Report, considering the country is home to the World Happiness Institute, but the Danish concept of wellness has to take a good portion of the credit for its continual high scoring. Hygge, pronounced ‘hoo-gah’, has no direct translation, but for the Danes, it symbolises warmth, cosiness and a feeling of intimacy. Research has found that in Denmark, hygge can act as a buffer against the stresses of everyday life, while also creating a sense of community and camaraderie. But hygge isn’t all dinner by candlelight and cups of hot cocoa; a lot of its origins come from the concept of mindfulness and community. In author Louisa Thomsen Brit’s Book of Hygge, she reveals that many households in Denmark have a copy of a folk songbook that they sing from to, ‘affirm the ideas of simplicity, cheerfulness, reciprocity, community, and belonging.’ Not keen on joining the local choir? Simply carving out more time for your loved ones can be a great way to utilise hygge in your life. And who knows, after a meal with friends and a bit of red wine, you might feel tempted to start singing from a Danish folk songbook.
‘Communities’ is a bit of a buzzword at the moment, but the studies around its importance back it up. The more community involvement you have in your life, the happier you are, and according to the Journal of Affective Disorder, people in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social interaction experience lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods who don’t have much social interaction. In Norway, community spirit is a huge part of how well their society functions. Many people stay in the area they were born in because they inherit their family homes. In fact, when asked, 94 percent of Norwegian people said that they had someone they could rely on in a time of need, which is more than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developments (OECD) average of 89 percent. With research in the UK suggesting that communal spirit is dying out, there’s never been a better time to try and socialise with the neighbours. Volunteer at your local community garden, or get involved with charity work. You won’t just be helping other people, you’ll be boosting your mood, too!
Yet another country where the weather might seem a little counterintuitive to the country’s happiness, but the key to Iceland’s happiness ranking lies in its citizen’s love of curling up with a good book. Iceland has more writers, more books published and more books read than anywhere else in the world. In fact, one in 10 will publish a book during their lifetime (bbc.co.uk). The country’s love affair with literature is so popular, that during the Christmas period, it’s a tradition in Iceland to give books and the word for it is jólabókaflóð, or ‘Christmas book flood’. Originating from the well-known Icelandic Sagas that are the basis of Norse mythology, which many people around the world recognise today, writing and storytelling is an integral part of Icelandic history. “Books offer encouragement, inspiration and comfort and can help to relieve the distress of depression, anxiety and other difficult feelings and experiences,” says bibliotherapy expert Professor Neil Frude, a consultant clinical psychologist. So, next time you come out of Waterstones with an eye-wateringly long receipt, just remember, you’re living your best Icelandic life.
New Zealand ranked ninth in the happiness list this year, and reports show that this was partly due to the social support that New Zealanders received after the Christchurch mosque shootings on the 15th of March. New Zealanders quickly came together following the incident to comfort and provide for one another, showing not only a strong community spirit, but a resilience to the attack on their country. In May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her government would introduce the world’s first ‘wellbeing budget’, which, as Veenhoven points out, can impact a country’s happiness score. “Unhappiness in North Western Europe is largely a matter of poor mental health, and good mental wellbeing is required in an individualistic, multiple-choice society”, says Professor Veenhoven. “For that reason, investment in mental health care is the main driver of average happiness in these nations. The more therapists per capita, the happier the average citizen.” Safeguarding your mental health often means different things for different people. For some, it can be setting boundaries, and for others, it means getting outside each day. Whatever it is that makes you tick, know that if it’s important enough for one of the happiest countries to spend billions on it, it’s well worth you investing your time into it as well.
What happiness means around the world…
Swot up on the phrases that other countries use to explain what happiness means to them.
Sobremesa: the Spanish word for the time you spend after your meal socialising with the people you shared the meal with.
Firgun: the informal Hebrew term and concept in Israeli culture, for the joy you feel that something good has happened or might happen to someone else.
Merak: the Serbian word that describes the pursuit of small, daily pleasures that add up to a greater sense of happiness and fulfilment.
Flaner: the French use this term to describe leisurely strolling the streets and soaking up a city’s beauty.