It’s approaching that time of year when the World Happiness Report (WHR) are due to release their annual ranking of the happiest countries from around the globe! For those unaware of what exactly this entails, the report considers a number of different variables, from GDP per capita, levels of corruption, life expectancy, freedom over life choices and generosity amongst the general population – in order to assess which nations possess the highest (and lowest) levels of life satisfaction.
But how might the handful of countries which consistently top the ranks, offer tourists a small slice of this happiness? The good news is that all of these destinations are within easy reach too – meaning you won’t break the bank if you’re smart with booking the right flights!
In 2017, Lonely Planet placed Finland as its third top travel destination, emphasising the accessibility to breath-taking nature, alongside a culture of collective eating, high-quality cuisine, and restorative sauna baths. A lot of travel guides have continued to narrow in on this idea of health and well-being as a key driver of tourism, and Finland appears to be no exception to this! If you can brave the cold, then Finland is definitely a year-round travel destination; whether you pick icy Lapland, the picturesque archipelagos, or the hubbub of Helsinki, you’ll probably leave Finland feeling rosy-cheeked and refreshed, maybe even taking home a little more ‘Sisu’ (inner strength) that is so embedded in Finnish identity.
Following closely behind in the rankings is Denmark – and luckily for its visitors, no matter which part of the country you chose to explore you can enjoy ample doses of year-round, happiness-inducing hygge. Again, saunas and outdoor swimming are certified mood-boosters here, along with communal dining experiences such as Folkehuset Absalon in Vesterbro, Copenhagen. Alternatively, you could immerse yourself in the effortlessly cool culture of Aarhus – confirmed as the country’s happiest city!
Surprise, surprise, it’s another Nordic country! Similarly in Norway, the concept of ‘Friluftsliv’ (directly translating to ‘open-air living’) plays a big part in the kind of ‘happy’ atmosphere you might experience on a visit here, especially if you make the most of the many hiking opportunities amongst the country’s dramatic fjords, as well as the capital city of Oslo – recognised as a city of culture and green spaces. The Norwegians have their own slightly adapted (or superior if you’re Norwegian) version of ‘hygge’, referred to as ‘Koselig/Kos’, which denotes a sort of stripped-back, wholesome feeling of being in the countryside, enjoying life’s simple pleasures in the company of loved ones – even the thought brings a fuzzy warmth to the heart!
I visited Iceland way back in 2013 on a school trip, during the bleak month of February, so naturally my memory extends little beyond the grey skies and inedible hostel food we endured. But I would be very eager to visit again and experience all that makes Iceland so happy! Its high ranking within the WHR has frequently been attributed to its close-knit community and ingrained resilience to the elements. For tourists and locals alike, both the annual ‘Food and Fun Festival’ and ‘DesignMarch’ stick out as inspiring and uplifting events. Or, absorb some Icelandic happiness by simply relaxing, mind and body, in the abundance of natural hot springs and spas, followed by a warming cup of coffee (or locally-made schnapps if you’re feeling particularly cold) and a hearty helping of the famous cake-like rye bread that’s cooked underground using geothermal heat.
Last but not least – get on your bike! Like Denmark, the Netherlands is renowned for its biking culture, and it’s no secret that exercise and fresh air can dramatically increase your energy levels and general sense of well being – once you’ve gotten over the initial terror that comes with navigating the bike lanes that is. I visited Amsterdam a couple of years back and it’s safe to say there’s a definite, erm, sense of ‘freedom’ that pervades the air – but whatever your views on the subject, it’s clear the approach to life here seems pretty laid back. Whether you fill your visit with canal-side wanders, a trip to the tulip fields, freshly made stroopwafels, or absorb the vast art and cultural offerings, there’s clearly a lot to be happy about in the Netherlands.
Outside of the WHR, there appears no concrete agreement as to what’s really behind these higher levels of (largely Nordic) happiness; something that is clearly so embedded in a country’s cultural expectations can be hard to pinpoint. During the winter time though, when many of us are likely to feel more isolated and cooped-up, travelling to one of these nature-embracing, hygge/kos filled (whichever you’d prefer to side with) destinations could provide you with a small dose of the satisfaction that locals statistically experience day-to-day – think of it as a sort of happiness pilgrimage!
As a side note, for those concerned by the UK’s recent exit from the European Union, any travel plans for the remainder for 2020 will be unaffected, and even following the end of this transition period, it’s expected that British nationals will be able to travel through Europe without a visa for up to 90 days in any 180 day period – but of course we will have to wait and see how negotiations pan out!
For specific travel guidance on all of the countries above, as well as more information on all things travel and mental health-related, head to www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice and make sure to follow @travelaware and @sotontravel
This list was based off the findings of the 2019 WHR, the full version is available at https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/#read