If you're sensitive to the atmosphere of the places you visit, you might want to consider recent international research on happiness and wellbeing as you decide on your next destination. Governments and NGOs have been increasingly drawn to these measures of success, taking into account factors such as freedom to make life choices, having someone to count on, and generosity – instead of just GDP– when totting up the success or otherwise of a country’s policies. Even the UN has got in on the act, publishing a World Happiness Report in 2013 that ranked the world’s nations according to their overall wellbeing. Here, according to that research, are the ten happiest countries in the world – a visit to any of these is guaranteed to come with good vibes.
Australia is undoubtedly a great country to visit and explore. It contains a vast and varied natural world, from deep red deserts to tropical rainforests to the world’s biggest coral reef; it’s got buzzing urban centers, from the nightlife of Sydney to the culture of Melbourne; it’s got pristine white-sand beaches and plenty of popular family resorts. But it turns out that it’s also a terrific place to live permanently, which quite a lot of travelers to the remote continent have chosen to do over the past few centuries - albeit to the general detriment of its original indigenous inhabitants.
Iceland is another country with great swaths of remote wilderness rolling out from urban centers where the majority of the population lives. Its natural world is rather different to Australia’s, however, covered with icy mountains, gargantuan glaciers, tremendous waterfalls and steaming geothermal springs, such as the world-famous Blue Lagoon. It was also ranked the most peaceful country in the world on the Global Peace Index, presumably contributing to its high levels of overall happiness.
Crisp Alpine air, fabulous imperial architecture and an unparalleled tradition of classical music draw most visitors to Austria. Music and architecture are combined in the Musikverein’s fabled Golden Hall, where you can hear the world’s greatest orchestras channeling the spirits of Mozart and Brahms. Afterwards, drop in for Viennese cake at one of the city’s elegant cafes. The country also has an exceptionally comprehensive system of social security and, concomitantly, one of the lowest crime rates in Europe.
Been thinking about Finland as your next summer vacation spot? Didn’t think so, but in fact this somewhat neglected Nordic nation – the eighth biggest country in Europe – has a lot of attractions. In its northern regions you can see some of the most phenomenal night skies in the northern hemisphere, a glittering starscape colored by the spiralling dance of the Northern Lights. And 10% of the country is made up of lakes, surrounded by fir forests, the most beautiful of which are popular get-away spots with nature-loving Fins. Here you can try a deeply invigorating Finnish tradition: heating up in a wood-walled sauna by the side of an icy lake, then when the temperature becomes unbearably high, bursting out and leaping into the lake’s freezing water. Phew.
Next up is Canada, coming in as the sixth happiest country in the world, a whole ten places ahead of its neighbor the United States. Again, this is a country with a string of major cities (relatively peaceful and prosperous places) set against a backdrop of vast and diverse miles of wilderness, from the placid shores of Nova Scotia to the snow-draped peaks of Whistler, BC. If you really want to get wild, head to the network of National Parks in the Northwest Territories. Here, far above the Arctic Circle, you can immerse yourself in an elemental world still untouched by the ambivalent pressures of civilization, where ridged canyons zig-zag down to immense rushing rivers and muskox roam the hills of remote Arctic islands. Big city wanderers find themselves in bustling Toronto, European-flavored Montreal or chill Vancouver.
Social democracy certainly seems to be vindicated by the UN’s research, with Sweden the third of five Nordic countries to make it onto this list. Its capital, Stockholm, is a beautiful city, spread across 14 islands connected by elaborate bridges, creating a natural cityscape of water, vegetation and broad open skies unusual for a settlement of its size. And the center of this waterborne city is an atmospheric old town, Gamla Stan, with cobbled streets winding between the stone-hewn facades of medieval homes and churches. Cafes, bars and terrific bakeries line these streets, contributing to the country’s impressive quality of life.
Staying in northern Europe (you won’t have to travel far to drop into the world’s five happiest countries), the Netherlands is also dominated by its fabled capital, which is the lodestone for most travellers. Amsterdam’s canals, lamplit streets, superb art museums, baked goods, great beer and rare freedom to get high in a public cafe draw millions of tourists a year. Other highlights include cycling the country’s famous tulip growing region; one leisurely 250-mile route involves circling the Ijseelmeer, Holland’s biggest lake, passing windmills, grazing cows, wading birds and endless fields of flowers.
Ice-capped mountains towering above rolling verdant valleys full of dairy farms and carpentry shops are usually the first images that come to mind when people think of Switzerland, and apart from the number of artisan cuckoo clock manufacturers, it’s a reasonably accurate vision. The Swiss Alps, cutting across the south of the country, provide some of the most sublime and accessible walking in Western Europe, and were a hotbed of Romanticism through the earlier nineteenth century. But the country’s cities have much to offer, too – explore Basel’s beautiful medieval Old Town, spread along the bank of the Rhine, then check out the galleries, museums and theatres of Zurich and Geneva.
It’s back to Scandinavia for the world’s second-happiest country, Norway, which also ranked as the most prosperous country in the world on the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index. It’s best known for its stunning west coast, an intricate shoreline of deep fjords and towering cliffs; it was from here that the Vikings set off, making the short sea voyage to northern Scotland before hopping on to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and quite possibly the location of modern-day Manhattan. These days, Norway’s cities are eminently civilised: Oslo currently cradles six Michelin stars, shared between five world-class restaurants.
Top of the class we have Denmark, a country that fails to follow the pattern of most of its companions in this list: have you ever heard of anyone visiting Denmark for its boundless natural beauty? The highest point in Denmark is not a mountain or even a hill, but the poetically named Søsterhøj Transmission Tower, reaching a mighty 315 meters above sea level. Still, there’s much to admire in the country’s progressive politics, with a fierce commitment to free speech and a deeply rooted social welfare system. And Denmark is also the home of Lego, and of Noma, the world's top-rated restaurant for four of the past five years.