A few months ago, I was lying on a beach in Costa Rica, under a tropical sun, still wet from a dip in the warm Pacific, an icy cup of rum punch in hand and my wife at my side. And yet, I was not happy. You see, the trip had been on the books for months, and my goal when booking had been to spend as much time as possible on a surfboard, indulging one of my great passions in one of the world’s best surf spots. A knee injury (and subsequent surgery) just prior to the trip changed all that. Now I was just…lying on the beach. Kelli noticed my melancholy mood. “Look around,” she told me. “Everyone here is glad to be here – the tourists and the locals. They’re so content just to be in this beautiful setting. Pura vida, as they say.” Of course, she was right, and I quickly snapped out of my funk.
Pura vida literally means “pure life”, and it’s the national motto of Costa Rica. But it could easily apply to any of the countries listed in the annual World Happiness Report. Since 2012, the United Nations Sustainable Development Network has published the report, which lists the world’s happiest countries. In a recent interview with the New York Times, report editor John F. Helliwell explained that the report is more of a reflection of contentment than what many of us might think of as sheer giddiness. Helliwell goes on to say that the World Happiness Report measures one’s overall satisfaction with life and the level of belief that your fellow citizens are looking out for one another. Happy people, argues Helliwell, “trust…and care about each other, and that’s what fundamentally makes for a better life.” And it appears, a happier life.
It goes without saying that happy countries make for great travel destinations; as it happens, Classic Journeys runs tours in 12 of this year’s top 20 Happiest Countries. Here’s a quick look at each of those.
19. Czech Republic
The end of the Cold War brought sweeping changes to eastern Europe, and no country has had a more dramatic turnaround than the Czech Republic. The country is now considered one of the world’s great cultural destinations, thanks in large part to its friendly, welcoming people.
18. The United States
We tend to overlook the fact that the U.S. is a pretty amazing country; there’s plenty of reasons why millions of people come here to visit every year. The highest mountain in North America is in Alaska; the world’s most famous canyon is in Arizona. Oh, and we also have Hawaii.
Fun Fact – corned beef and cabbage is widely shunned in Ireland, and for good reason. The food there is much better than our go-to St. Patrick’s Day fare.
13. The United Kingdom
For such a small island, the UK has a huge amount to offer. The (mostly) good-natured rivalry between Scotland and England is a great way to frame a visit: Scotland is said to be the birthplace of golf, and the 600-year old St. Andrews course is the oldest and arguably the most famous in the world. England is home to two of the world’s most famous royal homes: Buckingham Palace, and Tintagel Castle – said to be the birthplace of King Arthur.
Having travelled extensively through Canada, I can tell you that the stories are true: Canadians are incredibly nice. I can also testify to the stunning beauty of the Canadian Rockies; British Columbia’s Provincial Parks are home to some of the world’s great scenery. Something else that most people don’t know: the only fortified city in North America (picture the walled cities you might find in France) is in Quebec. And yes, Canadians love their most famous culinary export, poutine. (It’s French fries, covered in cheese and gravy – what’s NOT to love?)
It must be the Danube – it runs through both the Czech Republic and Austria, and both are in the list of top 20 Happiest Countries. To get a good sense of why Austria is such a draw, simply cue up the movie The Sound of Music; nearly all of the movie’s external scenes were filmed on location throughout the country.
8. New Zealand
Speaking of famous film locations, New Zealand served as the setting for the classic of fantasy cinema, 1988’s Willow. A few decades before that OTHER big fantasy movie series hit the screens, producer George Lucas and director Ron Howard thought that the county’s green, rugged landscapes would be the perfect location for a swords-and-sorcery epic.
It should be noted that Scandinavian countries have dominated the list of World’s Happiest Countries, routinely taking the top 5 spots year after year. This might seem unusual, since…well, the winters in Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland are very long, and very dark. But it makes sense, and not just because Norway is the world’s second largest consumer of coffee (the average Norwegian will go through about 22 pounds of coffee a year). Adverse conditions often build strong communities, and the common thread of taking care of neighbors and fellow citizens runs through the Scandinavian democracies. Also, it helps that Norway in the summertime is beautiful and inviting; the countless fjords are a major draw, and the temperate weather makes visiting them easy and comfortable. And if the fjords aren’t enough for you, there are about 50,000 islands off the coast of Norway.
When I visited Iceland, the one thing I had to try was the locals’ favorite hot dog. I was not disappointed. Reykjavik’s BBP serves up the best hot dog you’ll ever eat (sorry, Chicago). Icelandic food straddles a very strange line, that of familiar comfort food and…well, whatever category fermented shark meat served in a shot of locally distilled grain alcohol falls under. Iceland’s reputation as both stunningly beautiful and thoroughly delightful is well-earned. Icelanders are fiercely proud of their heritage, incredibly protective of their country’s natural resources, and unabashedly welcoming to visitors. And they’re exceptionally literate – Iceland boasts the most bookstores per capita of any country in the world, and 10% of Iceland’s population has or will publish a book.
Ski all winter, hike all summer – it’s not hard to see why the Swiss are among the world’s happiest people. Certainly living in the literal center of the European Alps helps – the opportunities for activity alone have made Switzerland the country with the lowest obesity rate in Europe. But so too does an incredibly high standard of living – the country has one of the lowest poverty levels in Europe, universities are inexpensive, and teachers’ salaries rank well above the country’s average salary mark. Switzerland has also gained a reputation as a hub of innovation; the country that invented the wristwatch has claimed the number one spot on the Global Innovation Index for the past nine years. Finally, Switzerland is both the world’s largest producer and consumer of chocolate. The country makes about 118,000 tons a year; the average Swiss citizen eats about 24 pounds annually.
It’s ironic that the world’s most famous Dane, Hamlet, was known for being melancholy. Clearly his fellow Danes aren’t.
For the third year in a row, Finland is the World’s Happiest Country. The New York Times cites the Finns’ happiness with their government (91% say that they think their President is doing a good job) and law enforcement (86% indicate that they trust the police) as driving factors. The Finns seem to be less “happy”, as we might define it, and more content, and this doesn’t seem to be limited to native Finns, but included immigrants to Finland as well.
Traveling gives us a sense of perspective, of course, and a big piece of that is the empathy born from the connections we form with our international friends. These days, I find myself thinking about my travels both here in the U.S. and abroad – over the past few years, I’ve been lucky to have spent time in Colorado, New Orleans, France, Italy, Iceland, and of course Costa Rica. The Central American nation came in at #15 on the list of World’s Happiest Countries, and I’m honestly surprised it didn’t rank higher. It’s a truly idyllic place, where the veneer of all the stuff that we think is so important is stripped away by the sight of a beautiful sunset on an empty beach. The Ticos – that’s the name that Costa Ricans call themselves – I know are no doubt weathering the current storm anxiously, as we all are. I’m looking forward to my next trip, and reminding myself that la pura vida is still out there.
Jason Avant is a writer and editor; a frequent contributor to the Classic Journeys Blog, he’s also contributed to the James Beard Award-winning travel website Roads and Kingdoms, as well as numerous other print and digital publications.