Dan Buettner, the author of Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zone Way, set out to find the happiest places on earth, and he thinks he’s discovered four contenders on four different continents. What makes residents in these places so glad to be living the lives they do? Here’s a hint: It has nothing to do with their material wealth, intelligence, or attractiveness. Instead, Buettner found that members of these communities, which span the globe from Denmark to Mexico, give priority to social networks and health and well-being above all—and they make choices that reflect those values. So if you’re looking for a cheery destination for your next vacation, consider these four spots—and get ready to take notes on how to really live the good life:
With one of the highest population densities in the world and denizens known for being workaholics, it’s hard to imagine the city-state of Singapore having one of the happiest populations on earth. And yet in a recent survey, 95% of them said they were either very happy or quite happy. They give their city high marks for cleanliness and safety—subways are pristine and unfailingly arrive on time, and police are seen as helpful and good at their jobs. What’s more, they feel they can count on their neighbors—all 5.1 million of them. As Ahmad Nizan Abbas, a lawyer from Singapore, explained, “We used to live in fishing villages where we pulled together to help each other…. If something happens to a Malay household, the whole Malay community will be there to lend support.”
The residents of Århus cheerfully part with 68% of their income in taxes, knowing that in return they will be guaranteed free healthcare, free daycare, and a topnotch education for their children. A robust city of 300,000 with a vibrant cultural scene and a diverse number of religions represented, the sense of community and equality (the range in incomes is narrow), as well as easy access to the nearby sea and surrounding countryside, make Århus seem more like a small town. “We believe that a rich person is not necessarily the one with a lot of money,” Jørgen Carlsen, an Århus school headmaster told Buettner. “It’s the one who really has a lot to be grateful for: nature, the company of other people, the ability to enjoy a good book.”
San Luis Obispo, CA
According to a 2008 Gallup-Healthways study, people who live in San Luis Obispo are more likely than residents of other U.S. cities to smile and experience joy and are less likely to experience pain or depression. Some 64,000 of the 260,000 people in the greater metropolitan area, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, volunteer at over 11,000 non-profit organizations. Few commutes are longer than 10 minutes (one reason its members rank in the upper third for job satisfaction), so “it’s easy to be involved,” resident Pierre Rademaker told Buettner. Business signs are unobtrusive by law, fewer than 11% of residents smoke—the lowest rate in the U.S.—there are lots of bike lanes, and the city’s plaza draws throngs of people for free concerts on summer Fridays. What’s not to love?
Unlike San Luis Obispans, the people of Monterrey don’t enjoy high household incomes or access to good healthcare. Instead, there’s a profound sense of gratitude for the new political freedom enjoyed since the oppressive Institutional Revolutionary Party lost power in 2000—the first time in nearly a century—as well as an emphasis on social life over work. “The American system is good for productivity, but not for the soul,” Miguel Basanez, a political scientist who lives in Monterrey told Buettner. Another reason Monterrey residents may be so happy is their faith in God and family, and their ability to tough it out through bad times. “We laugh at sickness, poverty and even death,” says Basanez. “We even have a holiday to celebrate death. November 2, the Day of the Dead, is one of the biggest holidays of the year.”