The Happiest Places In The World

What do Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore have in common? Their people feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy. Here’s how they do it.

The researchers who publish the annual World Happiness Report found that about three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. These factors don’t materialize by chance; they are intimately related to a country’s government and its cultural values. In other words the happiest places incubate happiness for their people.

COSTA RICA: FEELING JOY EVERY DAY—HEALTH, FAITH, FAMILY

Costa Ricans elected teachers as presidents, who, unencumbered by corrosive colonial institutions, introduced policies that launched an upward spiral of well-being and thus the environment for the Latin American character to thrive.

In 1869 Costa Rican law made primary school mandatory for every child, including, notably, girls. By 1930 the literacy rate was among the highest in Latin America. At the same time, the nation invested in supplying clean water for rural villages, stemming deadly childhood illnesses.

Since 1970 Costa Rica has seen life expectancy jump from 66 years to 80 years and infant mortality drop by a factor of seven.

In short Costa Rica’s social system takes care of most people’s needs.

DENMARK: WITH BASIC NEEDS COVERED, PURSUING PASSIONS IS EASIER.

Danes grow up believing they have the right to health care, education, and a financial safety net. University students draw a government stipend in addition to free tuition. New parents can take a yearlong government-paid parental leave at nearly full salary; this includes gay and lesbian parents. People work hard in Denmark, but on average less than 40 hours a week, with at least five weeks of vacation a year. The price for such lavish benefits is one of the world’s highest income tax rates, which starts at 41 percent and tops out at 56 percent—a field leveler that makes it possible for a garbageman to earn more than a doctor.

Setting aside time for self-fulfillment is another key ingredient of Danish happiness. Danish society encourages the kind of balance between engaging work and rewarding play that results in a sense of time described as flow.

SINGAPORE: A CLEAR, SAFE PATH LEADS TO SUCCESS.

Success for Singaporeans lies at the end of a well-defined path: Follow the rules, get into the right school, land the right job, and happiness is yours. (It’s traditionally summed up as the five C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership.) In a system that aspires to be a meritocracy, talent and performance are rewarded, in theory. You’ll hear Singaporeans complain about rising prices and their overworked lives, but almost all of them say they feel safe and trust one another.

As a result the people of Singapore today exemplify the third strand of happiness—what experts call life satisfaction. You score high when you’re living your values and are proud of what you’ve accomplished. You tend to be financially secure, have a high degree of status, and feel a sense of belonging. To achieve this type of happiness can take years, and it often comes at the expense of enjoying moment-to-moment daily pleasures.