After exploring the places in the world where people live longest, National Geographic fellow, NYT best-selling author, and founder of Blue Zones, LLC, Dan Buettner turned his focus to the places where people live happiest. Why do people in places like Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore report being happier than the rest of us? If you’re considering a move in America, what should you look for in a new city? And what will push the needle regardless of where we live?
What makes up happiness?
DB: There are a few enormous databases around the world (Gallup is the biggest) that use survey data to assess happiness. But happiness itself is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it. The components of happiness that you can measure, and that I’ve been most interested in are:
Pride: This is about how you evaluate your life overall. How satisfied are you with your job? Your family? Are you financially secure? Is your mom proud of you? Do you feel like you live your values?
Pleasure: You only remember about 2 percent of your life — highs like marriages and awards, and lows like getting dumped. You don’t remember most of the minutiae, or say, what you had for lunch last Tuesday. So if I ask you to think of your life as a whole and tell me how happy you are, you’re only using about 2 percent of memory to make an assessment. Because you can remember how the past 24 hours felt, this bucket is about what you ate for lunch yesterday. How much joy did you feel in the last 24 hours? How much did you smile, laugh, cry? How do you experience life?
Purpose: How often do you use your strengths to do what you do best? How engaged are you with your life?
Is one component of happiness more important than the others?
DB: You want a balanced portfolio. (I sound like a financial advisor when people come to me about their happiness.) It’s important to live with a sense of purpose and to experience some joy every day, but not at the expense of overall satisfaction.
You can take our quiz online to get a happiness self-diagnosis, and it comes with a prescription for rebalancing with evidence-based tips. We sucked in 100 million data points to study happiness around the world and did a regression analysis to see what made a difference in happiness.
What do the happiest places have in common?
DB: There is no such thing as a happy place where everyone is magically smiling and partying all the time. It takes work to create a really happy place, and it’s always the result of enlightened leaders. About 50 to 150 years ago, enlightened leaders in today’s happiest places shifted their focus from just economic development to policies that favored quality of life.
In general, happy places have four main focuses:
- Make sure all kids can read. Education is not about printing PhDs, but making sure that 80, 90, 100 percent of kids are reading. The education of girls is especially important. Not coincidentally I believe, the happiest places, like Denmark and Costa Rica, were first to educate daughters of farmers and peasants. Overall, girls who are educated grow up to lead different lives, make more informed voting decisions, have fewer children, and become parents who educate their kids. Everyone is elevated when girls are educated.
- Public health is more important than sick care, which is how I think of the American health care system. It’s not just about treating disease; in the happiest places, there tend to be squads of people that go out and visit homes and catch health issues before they become major problems.
- Trust. People trust politicians, police, and each other in happier places. If you’re making a comfortable salary and your boss offers you a 100-percent raise to leave your trusty neighborhood and go to a neighborhood full of people who don’t trust each other, don’t go.
- Equality. A hundred dollars for a single mom who is trying to make ends meet between paychecks is immeasurably more valuable than it is for a millionaire. For greatest happiness, you want that $100 to go to the greatest utility.
“About 50 to 150 years ago, enlightened leaders in today’s happiest places shifted their focus from just economic development to policies that favored quality of life.”
If this is sounding like a liberal agenda — it’s not. It’s just correlations between the happiness people report and what’s happening where they live.
That said, the happiest places also tend to be places where there are not a lot of guns or army presence. In Costa Rica, there’s no army. No parents ever worry about their children being shipped off to fight. In Denmark and Singapore, almost no individuals own guns.
Our Blue Zones Project, which started off focusing on helping places to become healthier, is now looking to help cities and towns reshape their policies, local laws, and ordinances to make it more likely that their residents will be happy.
How do we become happier?
DB: We’re often misguided or just plain wrong about what will bring happiness to our lives. I estimate that some 280 advertising impressions rinse over our psyches every day, encouraging us to eat food that’s not good for us and buy things we don’t need. Pop psychology techniques tell us to savor life, keep an appreciation journal, and so on. Some of these are good ideas but for most of us, they are all diets — we don’t do them enough to make a difference.
What we distilled from our research was how to actually stack your personal deck of cards in favor of happiness. Here are the aces:
If you want to get happier, reshape your environment. We know for sure that health brings happiness. Forget trying to have a great career if you let your health go to hell.
Ideally, you want a home with a lot of light, green plants, and a dog — and set your default background music to Mozart. All favor happiness.
Set up your bedroom so that it’s an easy environment to sleep in. And if it’s possible, get eight, or even nine-plus hours of sleep.
“We’re often misguided or just plain wrong about what will bring happiness to our lives.”
If you’re choosing between a front porch and a back deck, choose the front porch — it’s a social invitation.
Spend six to seven hours a day socializing face-to-face. And you want to have the ability to spontaneously connect with people. Right now, I’m looking out my bedroom window and people are walking a path that wraps around an urban lake. If I go out my front door, I’ll bump into someone.
Ideally, you want three to five friends who you can have a meaningful conversation with, who care about you on a bad day. And you want your friends to be happy, too. Unhappiness is contagious. If you’re sitting on a barstool at the end of the night, listening to a friend bitch, you’re probably going to feel less happy. You can also feel lonelier when you’re with someone who is lonely than you would if you were by yourself.
Find a best friend at your office. Money doesn’t appear to have a significant impact on happiness — if you make enough to get by.
What else should you consider if you want to move to a happier place?
DB: In Blue Zones of Happiness, I argue that most Americans spend most of their lives in about 10 miles of home — the life radius. Where you live is an important driver of happiness. We see people report a 20-percent jump in happiness just by moving; sometimes their happiness even doubles. For instance, people who moved from an unhappy region to Copenhagen, Denmark, reported the higher happiness level of their new home within one year. If you’re unhappy and living in a place where overall happiness is reportedly low, moving to a place like Boulder, Colorado, or San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara in California will stack your happiness deck. In general, in America, people are happier in medium-sized cities than in suburbs or the biggest cities. And college towns tend to be the happiest. Of course, picking up and moving your family and your life isn’t possible for many people, but there are things you can do no matter where you live.
For example, you want to be close to green space — ideally within a couple hundred yards. There’s a lot of research on the connection between the outdoors and happiness. People who live in a sunny place are about 5 percent more likely to be happy, and same for people who live near water, be it a river, stream, ocean, lake. People who live in the mountains are also more likely to be happy. So wherever you live, spend as much time in and around nature as you can.
How does happiness correlate with age?
“After 50, happiness typically climbs and keeps going up beyond one hundred — as long as you keep your health.”
DB: It varies from country to country. In general, people are pretty happy and optimistic in their twenties. In America, when you have children, daily happiness (or positive emotion) and life satisfaction usually drop. In Denmark, where moms tend to have the help they need and solid health care, their happiness goes up in all domains. In America, we also tend to work too much — the ideal is probably 35 hours a week and we work closer to 45. The least happy age, on average, is 50. But after 50, happiness typically climbs and keeps going up beyond 100 — as long as you keep your health. The happiest people are centenarians.
Is there a downside to pursuing happiness?
DB: Trying to chase happiness is a recipe for neurosis. We all know people who are constantly trying to improve themselves. The problem is that we all have 99 problems … a gray hair, a wrinkle, or there’s a dent in the car, and so on. We can work really hard to prioritize the top nine of our 99 problems — but by the time they’re fixed, there will be nine new things on the list. So, shift the focus off of those 99 things and toward something else: your passion, your work, volunteering, your kids. When you focus more on others, those 99 problems tend to diminish.
“The problem is that we all have 99 problems … a gray hair, a wrinkle, or there’s a dent in the car, and so on.”
If you set up your ecosystem the right way — shape your surroundings, home life, house, workplace, choose a good community — you can forget about trying to pursue happiness.
How has your own approach to happiness changed?
DB: I’ve been exploring this for a decade. I probably used to work harder than I do now. I’m naturally social so I indulge in social activities. I focus on staying fit. I’ve taken the time to know exactly what I’m good at, what I like to do, and what I can contribute — every day I wake up with that in mind.
I’m maniacal about getting the right amount of sleep. I rarely have to set an alarm now.
I’ve kind of jettisoned some people out of my life who were not making me happy. I don’t advise dumping your old friends, especially if they need you. But if I’m not doing someone any good, and he/she isn’t doing me any good, I’ve given myself permission to back away. And I’ve tried to surround myself with more people who trigger ideas.