It may feel like there’s been little to be happy about in the past year, but the World Happiness Report (WHR) 2021 reveals the ways that people are still finding joy, even in hard times. The annual investigation into the happiest countries around the world put Finland in the top spot – for the fourth year running – while the majority of the top 10 was filled with Scandinavian countries. New Zealand was the only non-European country to make the list, while the UK slid from 13 to 18.
Dealing with the pandemic hasn’t been easy, but is there something about these countries that makes them happier? We take a look at the top 10 to uncover their wellbeing DNA, and help give your happiness levels a lift.
Happiness secret: love of learning
The Finnish education system is renowned as the best in the world, with a relaxed attitude to lessons and less emphasis on testing. And this joy of learning for learning’s sake is something we can all learn from.
“Setting and working towards goals, like studying a new subject, is a key tool for managing our day-to-day mental health,” says Catherine Seymour, head of research at the Mental Health Foundation. “Learning something new can give us pleasure, and a sense of accomplishment.”
Feeling inspired? Take a look at the free courses on Futurelearn, Skillshare, or Coursera.
Happiness secret: cycling
Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is ranked the most bicycle-friendly city in the world, with 49% of work or school commutes taken by bike. But can cycling really improve your happiness? Simon Parker, travel writer and journalist, recently cycled through Scandinavia to film a documentary. He says it’s no surprise that such a happy country also loves cycling.
“Cycling impacts much more than your physical wellbeing,” he says. “Time on a bike is brilliant thinking time, a time to reflect. You can compartmentalise the stresses and strains of the day, think about your relationships, and still really engage with your surroundings.”
All those Danish pastries must put a smile on their faces, too.
Happiness secret: strong community
A key factor for happiness is a well-functioning democracy, and the Swiss vote on almost everything. This ‘direct democracy’ means every citizen helps to decide which policies go ahead, from buying fighter jets to banning cars on Sundays! We don’t have the same system in the UK, but getting involved in your local community has a similar effect.
Catherine from MHF says: “Being part of a strong community is good for our mental health because we don’t feel alone. And when we face problems, we know we have the support of others.”
If you want to get more involved, start volunteering. Local Facebook groups often have community pages, or head to ncvo.org.uk
Happiness secret: green energy
Iceland is the world’s largest green energy producer; 85% of it’s energy comes from renewable sources such as geothermal energy – the heat produced underground. And although it sounds bizarre, burning fossil fuels can actually affect our happiness levels.
Researchers from Oxford University recently discovered that sustainability makes people happier, while progress on issues such as climate change is linked to an increase in country-wide wellbeing. This means that using green energy is good for your mental health, and good for the planet!
Happiness secret: family-friendly lifestyles
“Anywhere that doesn’t have a ‘long-hours’ culture will have high happiness levels,’ says Prof Sir Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Health at the University of Manchester. In the Netherlands, you’re only allowed to work a maximum of 2,080 hours a year, which works out at seven hours per working day, or a 9–5 shift. Prof Sir Cary Cooper says: “They may enjoy their work, but it’s not their priority in life.”
Leaving work at 5pm means parents can spend more time with their children, and that extra family time has a positive result. A 2020 Unicef report found Dutch children are the happiest in the world, so happiness seems to start young in the Netherlands.
Happiness secret: friluftsliv
If you struggle with the Danish philosophy of hygge – feeling cosy and content – the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv may be more your thing. Roughly translated as ‘open-air living’, it describes the joy you get from being outside in nature.
“A getaway to a green wood, a walk by the sea, or a gentle hike up a mountain does more to lift the spirits than any expensive handbag or the latest must-have gadget ever could,” Signe Johansen, author of How to Hygge, writes in her book. Why not pull on your hiking boots to find your friluftsliv?
Happiness secret: better work-life balance
Sweden shares many similarities with its Nordic neighbours, including a good work-life balance. To help rebalance yours, try setting some boundaries. Jo Hooper, founder of the Mad and Sad Club, says boundaries are just behaviours, which makes it easy to change them.
“Your behaviours set people’s expectations of you,” she says. “People can’t adhere to your boundaries unless you set them.” Can you change any behaviours to help reset your boundaries?
Happiness secret: five weeks mandatory holiday
Luxembourg may be small, but they have a huge holiday allowance: five weeks a year! Prof Sir Cary Cooper believes holidays are essential for good mental health, as “they’re not just a break from the pressures of work, but a chance to spend quality time together as a family or a couple”.
Ideally, take a holiday when you need to, not when everyone else is going away. “Holidays in August are expensive and overcrowded, which isn’t much of a break,” says Prof Sir Cary Cooper. If you can’t avoid the school holidays, keep your focus on your family when you’re away; put on your ‘out of office’, and block all email notifications.
Happiness secret: outdoor activities
New Zealand is a great place to go hiking, biking, swimming, climbing, and much more! “I call it ‘organic happiness’ – that mind and body benefit you get from exercise and exposure to nature,” says personal trainer Luke Goulden.
Plenty of research shows that exercise in green spaces is linked to wellbeing. Luke says: “This could be a walk through the woods, circuit training in the park, or mountain biking.”
Happiness secret: social connections
The WHR also measures social support to rank each country, and Austrians are rich in social connections. A study of nearly 1,000 Austrians found that those with bigger social networks felt less stressed, tired, and worried. Experts say relying on a group of friends, rather than one person, can protect our mental wellbeing when times are tough. So, as restrictions ease, when’s your next get together?
To connect with a life coach and discuss ways to improve your own happiness, visit www.lifecoach-directory.org.uk
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