Can the happiness of different countries be measured? And if so, can it help make you happier?
An initiative of the United Nations releases a World Happiness Report each year that lists the countries whose citizens are deemed the happiest. This ranking is based on six key factors—trust (in government and business)…health…gross domestic product (GDP) per capita…generosity…freedom to make life decisions…and social support (or a sense of community). Secrets of five super-happy countries that can help make you happier, too…
The secret: Bring your community together.
Why it makes you happy: Lykke (pronounced loo-kah) is the Danish word for happiness, and it’s vital to life in Denmark. Most uniquely, the Danish people have pioneered the concept of hygge (pronounced hoo-ga), creating cozy contentment and well-being through simple acts like spending time with friends and curling up on the couch with a mug of hot tea and a good book.
About 50,000 Danes live in a type of co-housing, called bofællesskab, in which several independent houses are clustered around a large common house and garden. It’s attractive to families with young children (no need to hire babysitters!) and older adults, who often become socially isolated. In research published last year, having supportive friends in older age was found to be an even stronger predictor of well-being than strong family connections.
Anything that increases the sense of community will echo the spirit of Danish communal living—build a community garden…start a book-sharing program in your neighborhood or religious institution…organize a block party, etc.
The secret: Brain-brushing.
Why it makes you happy: While most countries emphasize financial measures like gross national product, the Bhutanese focus on a “Gross National Happiness Index.” In Bhutan, the school day begins and ends with a short mindfulness exercise called brain-brushing, an emotionally balancing meditation so named to help children view it as routine as brushing teeth.
Want to try a form of brain-brushing? Loving-kindness meditation, in which one silently repeats phrases such as May you be happy or May you be free from suffering when thinking about somebody else, has been shown to be effective at promoting positive emotions. Helpful: The Calm app, for instance, offers guidance in loving-kindness meditation for iOS and Android platforms.
The secret: Forest-bathing.
Why it makes you happy: Called Shinrin-yoku, forest-bathing is the act of spending time outdoors and soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of nature. You breathe in the earthy scents and take time to appreciate the contrasting colors of leaves, sky, earth and water.
Forest-bathing has been linked to lower blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (after only 20 minutes!). One theory, beyond just the fact that it’s relaxing: Trees release aromatic compounds called phytoncides, and inhaling these compounds may curb the production of stress hormones.
So get out into nature. An easy way to do it: Visit the same natural spot often throughout the year, mindfully noting each seasonal change, like the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind in fall…and then the absence of that sound in the winter.
The secret: Bike when you can.
Why it makes you happy: Besides the physical health benefits, exercise in general improves mood, boosts self-esteem and protects against depression. In fact, a 2018 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that 12% of future cases of depression could be prevented if adults were physically active for just one hour total each week…less than nine minutes a day!
The secret: Help strangers.
Why it makes you happy: A study published in 2003 in American Scientist that explored people’s willingness to help someone during a chance street encounter found that a whopping 100% of Rio de Janeiro residents offered to assist a stranger who dropped a pen or who appeared blind. Helping people has science-backed health and happiness benefits. People who volunteer, for example, tend to live longer, are less likely to become depressed later in life and have better self-esteem. So give back—to a cause, to a friend, to a stranger.