The results are in: the top three happiest countries are (drumroll, please) Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland, according to the 2016 World Happiness Report. The U.S. doesn't appear until farther down the list, in the no. 13 spot. So of course, we immediately wanted to know: What are the secrets to bliss in those top-ranked nations?
“None of these happy places do just one thing,” says National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, who wrote a book about some of the world's happiest populations called Thrive ($15; amazon.com). It's really about their everyday mindset and activities, he says. Here, Buettner points to four joy-inducing habits we can steal from the Danes, Swiss, and Icelanders.
They focus on staying active—not exercising
Cities in Denmark and Switzerland are all very walkable and bikeable, says Buettner. In fact, in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, 50% of people commute by bike every day, according to the government. “In places where people are happy, they’re getting what we call non-exercise physical activity,” he says. “They don’t call it exercise. They say they’re going to the market, to work, or out with friends and hopping on their bike to get there.” While hitting the gym is great if it’s something you love, incorporating more movement into your everyday life could be key to upping your happiness quotient.
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They appreciate the beauty of nature
“Green spaces and happiness are strongly linked,” says Buettner. Research shows that walking in nature can decrease anxiety and worry, as well as boost your cognitive abilities. But getting outdoors doesn't have to mean getting in your car and driving an hour to a secluded trailhead. Simply strolling through a local park can perk you up. “These healthy everyday habits have to be easy and seamless to fit into your life, otherwise you’re not going to do them,” Buettner says.
They catch up with their friends
The Danes have a name for spending time with loved ones: hygge (pronounced "hooga"), which basically means cozy togetherness with friends and family. In our hectic lives, it can be tough to plan a regular night out with pals. But you can try to squeeze small doses of catch-up time into your existing schedule: Pick up the phone rather than log on to Facebook. Stop to chat with your colleagues by the coffee pot. Take a moment to check in with your neighbor when you bump into each other in the street. These small efforts make socializing a natural part of your day.
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They’re turning off the TV
Connecting with family, running errands by bike, eating lunch in the park—all of that leaves little time for zoning out in front of the tube. And that’s a very good thing, says Buettner. He worked with National Geographic to create the True Happiness Test, an online survey that has collected data on the habits of 150,000 people. (You can take the test for free at bluezones.com.) The results show that those who report feeling the most joy watch just 45 minutes of TV a day. “If TV comes at the expense of socializing, staying in shape, or activities like volunteering, you’re trading diamonds for rhinestones,” Buettner says. In other words, while binge watching House of Cards may feel relaxing in the moment, it won't do you much good in the long run. Playing in the yard with your dog, or meeting a friend for tea? Those are small but vital steps toward happy.