One of the greatest things about life today – as compared, let us say, to that in the nineteenth century and all history before that – is that it is relatively easy to move to somewhere far away from where we grew up. Probably hundreds of millions of people take advantage of that possibility during their lifetime, though a much smaller number move to a different country. Like life in general, a dramatic move is, most often, a default decision – circumstances, such as a job posting to a different city or country, getting married to a foreigner, studying far from home, or some other chance happening, prompt us to up sticks. Such moves can be highly fortuitous. But I think we should all seriously consider moving to a different place without any such prompting.
Why? Because the chances are we can be happier elsewhere. And perhaps be healthier and live longer too; and quite possibly, better off into the bargain.
You only need to do a little travelling to realize that some places are much happier than others. Layer on top of that your own personal preferences – it is highly unlikely that, given perfect information and choice, you are ideally suited to live where you do. Of course, if you are happy where you are, and have excellent friends and associates, there is no need to go through the exercise I recommend. But otherwise, I really think you should. You see, happiness is contagious.
Dan Buettner, a journalist who spent fifteen years at National Geographic – and had the opportunity to observe very many different places and peoples – has written extensively about how varied life is throughout the world. Exhibit “A” for him is Denmark. This country is always near the top of the list of the world’s happiest places. Perhaps controversially, Buettner says, “Since ambition and status are not celebrated there, they’re in a position to take a job for passion … They’re spending most of their days doing something they enjoy.”
I suspect the Danes’ happiness may be a bit more complicated than job satisfaction, and the free college tuition and healthcare also cited by Buettner; but there is no dispute that it’s a happy place. Another happy country he cites is Singapore, which has quite different policies – a structured path to success, strong family ties, and a thriving low-tax economy. “The Singapore experience,” he says, perhaps rather condescendingly, “teaches us that, yes, there is a brand of happiness where if you get rich and think you’re happy, you are.”
The latest Happiness Survey compiled by the UN from academic research shows these are the top ten countries:
One interesting finding is that the happiness of immigrants to these countries mirrors the happiness of the locally born population. So, if you go and live in one of these countries, the chances are that you’ll be happy too.
Making Your Own List of Where You’d Be Happy
Perhaps, though, it’s not a simple as moving to one of the ten ‘happy’ countries. It may also be sensible to go to a place where you and your family are most likely to be happy, based on what is important to you.
For example, you could make a list of the characteristics that are essential, or highly important, to you. My list has the following criteria:
I don’t care how happy the people in Scandinavia are there – I couldn’t live in a cold country where wine is so expensive, and taxes are high.
Based on a weighting of the factors I’ve listed, these are my top ten countries/regions:
Only three of the ten “happiest” countries make my list, and they are all in my bottom half; none of the countries satisfy all my criteria.
It’s useful to draw up a shortlist, but unless you have already lived in the shortlisted countries, the list may be wrong. Trips as a tourist are some help but will not be representative of living there. There is no substitute for going to live for a few months at least in your top three destinations; and looking around there for the places within the country you like the most. Make a list of all your friends and acquaintances who live abroad and ask them to rate each country on all the criteria which are essential or very important to you. Having a few good friends already resident in one of the countries may also be a very good base; this could tip the balance for you.
Finally, the quality of life may vary a lot within each country. Which raises a final consideration, wherever you live:
City Versus Country Life
Do you want to live in a city, in the suburbs, a small town, or the countryside?
I liked living in the center of London when I was in my late twenties and thirties, but nothing could induce me to do that now. I need space, the ability to take my dogs out for a walk directly from home, and gentle hills with a view of the sea thrown in. For me, dog-friendly living is a must – a dog is essential for happiness, and the dog must be as happy the humans. Also important for me are quiet country lanes for safe cycling, and a variety of villages and small towns with unpretentious restaurants serving good food. Friends nearby are very important too. If necessary, import them by inviting them to stay and showing them how happy they would be if they moved there.
Finally, a Philosophical Reflection
One of the paradoxes of my beliefs is that I am a card-carrying individualist and libertarian, yet also profoundly aware of the importance on our environment, defined both broadly and narrowly.
A place which is attractive, clean, and tidy will tend to invite behavior which keeps it that way; a city ridden with crime will, at the margin, attract more crime and inconsiderate action even by law-abiding citizens. A happy family will attract happy friends and set up a little “republic of love”. A happy firm can be told from an unhappy one by even the most inobservant visitor.
I repeat - Happiness and unhappiness really are contagious.
The challenge for public policy is to encourage individual initiative and creativity; while also increasing individual and collective happiness. History, tradition, and consideration for all citizens, and for physical beauty, are as important as changes which increase personal freedom and contribution to society. It’s not clear to me that any polity on earth has provided a model that can serve for the world or even a large part of it.
Perhaps, instead of searching for such a model, we should look for “happiness islands” – places where most people are already happy – and create many more of them, using whatever works locally. If there are any common denominators, they may be beauty, safety, tradition, and economic freedom. We should cherish each one of these, but only the combination of all four is likely to hit the jackpot of happiness.