All around the world, billions of people are just trying to live healthy and fulfilling lives — but it’s easier to be happy in some countries than in others. At least, that’s what the U.N. thinks.

Each year on March 20, the U.N. celebrates the International Day of Happiness by publishing the World Happiness Report. The report — which evaluates self-reported data from the Gallup World Poll — attributes happiness to factors like per-capita GDP, social support, life expectancy, generosity, freedom to make life choices, and perceptions of corruption, and then uses the data to determine which countries have the “happiest” populations. Of course, the elements outlined in the report aren’t the only factors that contribute to individual happiness, but they certainly have a major impact.

In honor of the International Day of Happiness, we’re looking at the measurable factors that contribute to different countries’ scores, all in hopes of identifying the harder-to-quantify characteristics that make life a little sweeter in nations around the world.

A church in Finland, one of the happiest countries in the world.
Photo by Tapio Haaja

Nordic Countries

Are those the Northern Lights that we see above, or is it just all the glowing positivity radiating across the Nordics? All five countries in this region — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark — have figured in the top 10 happiest nations since 2013, and Denmark has even taken the gold medal in three separate years. According to the 2019 report, Finland is the happiest country in the world, and the rest of the Nordic countries aren’t far behind.

It’s interesting to note that the five nations share several key characteristics outlined in the U.N.’s report, including high GDPs, robust social programs, and healthy citizen lifestyles. Additionally, Iceland is the most gender-progressive country in the world, Finland boasts one of the globe’s highest-quality education systems, and Sweden is famous for its liberal environmental and social policies.

Beyond their on-paper policies, we can’t ignore the high value these nations place on healthy habits and lifestyles. For instance, sauna-going is Finland’s national hobby, offering manifold mental and physical health benefits to the country’s citizens. Similarly, the Danish emphasize the importance of experiencing hygge — a word that essentially translates to “warmth, comfort, coziness” — in the small moments of their everyday lives, from drinking hot chocolate by the fire to going on a walk at sunrise.

These five countries are also known for their otherworldly beauty, which manifests itself in the form of fjords, lagoons, black-sand beaches, arctic wilderness, the Northern Lights, and more. Although the World Happiness Report doesn’t address natural beauty, we can’t help thinking that the Great Outdoors must make life a little brighter in the Nordics!

A city and surrounding mountains in Switzerland
Photo by Martin Sattler

Switzerland

Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau discusses happiness quite a bit in his writings, but he says it best in his autobiography: “True happiness is indescribable.”

Be that as it may, Rousseau’s home country seems to know a thing or two about what makes its citizens happy. In 2015, Switzerland was declared the most joyful nation in the world, and the alpine destination has been a mainstay in the top 10 ever since, thanks to factors like its universal healthcare system, healthy economy, and efficient rail system.

Of course, the Swiss have plenty of additional reasons to smile. They aren’t afraid to indulge in delicious food, like cheesy raclette and mouth-watering chocolate. And with the Alps in their backyard, and a deep-rooted passion for hiking and skiing in their blood, they’re an active bunch that absolutely loves getting outside. We’ve even heard talk of one Swiss paragliding instructor who glides from the sky and lands in his garden every evening when it’s time to go home, making for a positively idyllic lifestyle!

All in all, Switzerland sounds like a fantastic place to live — after all, even the country’s flag is a big plus.

A tulip field in the Netherlands, one of the world's happiest countries.
Photo by Giu Vicente

The Netherlands

The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world, and we think we know why. For one thing, the nation’s infrastructure is extremely bike-friendly, and the Dutch people love getting from Point A to Point B on two wheels, a habit that keeps them both healthy and happy. For another, the country is home to a host of beautiful cities, including Amsterdam, Delft, Leiden, and Naarden — places that many travelers dream of, but very few people get to experience as locals. And, of course, we can’t overlook the country’s relaxed drug policies and colorful tulip fields as other possible sources of happiness!

Like all of the other top-rated countries in the U.N. report, the Netherlands has a high life expectancy and GDP per capita, as well as strong social support, generous citizens, and a healthy appreciation for individual freedom. What’s more, most Dutch citizens have an exceptionally healthy work-life balance, and the national unemployment rate is low, so the country definitely hits the mark on happiness.

Banff National Park. Canada always ranks high on the World Happiness Report.
Photo by Kevin Bowler

Canada

As the only North American nation that consistently makes the top 10 in the annual report, Canada has a lot going for it: high life expectancy and per-capita earnings, solid social support, high levels of personal freedom, generous (and polite!) citizens, universal healthcare, and low perceptions of corruption.

In addition, the Great White North is home to varied scenery that’s beautiful in every season: rugged coastlines, boreal forests, turquoise lakes, towering mountains, and sprawling glaciers, to name just a few natural wonders. Canadians know that their country experiences colder weather than most nations do, but they fully embrace their climate; millions of citizens appreciate a good game of pond hockey, and a few cities have even developed official strategies to help their residents get the most out of the winter.

Canada also has a large immigrant population, and fittingly enough, the 2018 World Happiness Report compared happiness levels between native-born citizens and immigrants in each country. The report found that, in Canada, both groups of people experienced roughly equivalent levels of life satisfaction.

All things considered, life in Canada sounds pretty great, eh?

New Zealand is one of the happiest countries in the world.
Photo by Holger Link

Australia and New Zealand

Australia and New Zealand are two of the happiest countries in the Southern Hemisphere (and in the world). The two countries have both scored high on the World Happiness Report for several consecutive years, thanks in part to their social programs, high GDPs, and citizens’ longevity. According to the 2019 report, New Zealand is the world’s eighth happiest country, and Australia is the 11th.

Of course, there are several factors that make life even better for the people who call those countries home: Australia’s sunny weather and inviting cities and friendly population, New Zealand’s gorgeous scenery and vibrant culture and adrenaline-inducing adventures.

Close-up photography in Bhutan, where the government measures Gross National Happiness.
Photo by Dmitry Romanovsky

Bhutan

Bhutan isn’t exactly one of the happiest nations in the world — in fact, it ranked 97th in the 2018 worldwide report and 95th in the 2019 edition. But despite the sizable gap between Bhutan and the other countries described in this article, the small Asian nation is worth examining for its commitment to measuring Gross National Happiness.

To the Bhutanese, this measure is considerably more important than the country’s GDP, and the country’s constitution even states that all development policies should ultimately increase the GNH. The government calculates this value by looking at several metrics, all oriented around sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and promotion, environmental conservation, and good governance — providing a fairly well-balanced way of looking at happiness.

In fact, the International Day of Happiness only exists because the U.N. took a page from Bhutan’s book a few years ago. The first international celebration of happiness, which occurred in 2012, was announced shortly after Bhutan hosted a U.N. panel discussion on the importance of happiness and well-being.

Of course, Bhutan itself still has some work to do, but its holistic approach to happiness — a political and societal framework that values quality of life over productivity measures — is both refreshing and inspiring.

Colorful houses in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Photo by Maksym Potapenko

While survey data can’t exactly identify the secret sauce for finding happiness, we hope this article has helped shed light on the things that make people smile in different parts of the world. A beautiful backdrop certainly seems to boost individual happiness; the same goes for getting active, spending time outside, and affording adequate time for rest and relaxation.

If you’d like to make the most of this worldwide celebration of joy, we recommend getting outside, spending time with your loved ones, and doing the activities that you love — all of which have the power to create a ripple effect and ultimately shape your community for the better. Oh, and don’t forget to comment below on what makes you feel happiest.

Happy International Day of Happiness!

Header image by Johny Goerend
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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.