The Happiest People in the World Think Differently

Knowing their perceptions could change your life.


Ric Burnett

3 years ago | 4 min read

If you believe the narratives regarding finding, achieving, or owning happiness, your mind may envision dense jungle quests and treasure maps. Similar to explorers from our favorite tales, we’re constantly seeking the next thing to provide a taste of the dangling carrot perpetually out of reach. Like a desert oasis, it dissolves into wisps of memory, leaving us wondering why we can’t hold on.

Are we incapable, broken, damned? Or is the story we’ve been fed critically flawed? What if happiness isn’t a treasure to be found, a destination reached, or something discovered after a subsequent pay bump? Beliefs from around the world help shed light on why Americans struggle to find happiness now more than ever before and provide unique insights by defining what happiness means to others.

Happiness is a skill

Maybe happiness is not something you inherit or even choose, but a highly personal skill that can be learned, like fitness or nutrition. — Naval Ravikant

The easy pill to swallow is the fact no two people find happiness the same way. As individuals, it makes sense. If we did, a simple formula would cure the world’s sadness and allow us to achieve our dreams. Reality isn’t that convenient.

The tougher truth we don’t want to accept is being happy takes work. It requires being intentional, every day. It takes self-reflection, and the fear of truly analyzing ourselves can be paralyzing. But like any other skill, success demands putting in the effort and understanding it gets easier with repetition.

The articles and resources around practicing happiness are everywhere, but these concepts show up consistently:

  • Defining what makes you happy is an important place to start. Without this understanding, you may find yourself confusing happiness for instant gratification. Take your time and find the activities or moments you feel at peace. Then, find ways to do them more often.
  • Exercise functions as a catalyst in multiple ways. Simply taking a walk outside places your mind in a different realm. With your endorphins flowing and focus on your environment keeping potential negative thoughts at bay, the scientifically proven benefits of even a 20-minute walk will change your life. Add in the boost in self-esteem and the benefits of exercise compounds.
  • Gratitude puts your brain into a positive mindset. Appreciating positive moments, paying attention to positive things, and thinking positively while conceding negativity as an equally acceptable emotion, trains your brain to see more good than bad.
  • Self-care incorporates many of the previous suggestions, but also includes kindness to yourself while accepting the inevitable bad portions of the human experience. Hyperfocusing or repetitively thinking about negative parts of life or yourself only leads to more anxiety. Intentionally building resilience against those chunks of life makes bouncing back to the positive much easier.

Happiness as an emotion

In a recent Tim Ferriss podcast, he and his guest discussed the American idea of happiness as a tangible thing, something people search for and attempt to retain at all costs. But this idea was countered with the idea of happiness as a fleeting emotion, which the French believe. I like the idea of happiness as an emotion.

Once we realize happiness is a temporary thing, like anger and sadness, we better cope with its coming and going. It’s reckless to believe happiness should occur constantly.

The French aren’t the only culture to recognize happiness differently. Some of the happiest nations in the world express the idea differently.

According to the Gallup World Poll, cities in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway make up half of the world's top ten happiest cities. So, how do they understand happiness? According to Afar, here’s how they and other classically “happy” countries understand it:

  • Sweden uses the words “Fika” and “mys” as keys to happiness. The first describes time made to eat and socialize, while the latter relates to coziness. Locals find a combination of these in the act of grabbing coffee and sweets with their closest friends, catching up and bonding with one another.
  • Norway’s people find happiness in the outside world, even in freezing temperatures. The area's landscape offers easy access to “Friluftsliv,” translated as “outdoor living or outdoor activity,” but their concept doesn’t mean you have to live in the wild. Finding friluftsliv could be taking a walk in a park without your phone, leaving life’s social pressures behind for a while.
  • Denmark’s culture finds happiness in comfort, known as “hygge” to its people. Like the Swedes, the idea bases its concept on a cozy environment, being present, and exuding gratitude or togetherness with others.
  • France’s society often gets lumped in with our conversation. Their culture offers some of the most paid time-off to its people. Even the French Canadian culture brings the idea of “Joie de vivre” into their daily life. The term was coined hundreds of years ago, and they’ve mastered the idea of it by finding joy in life, whether it's eating croissants, making time for 3-hour dinners, or simply finding extra time to enjoy the finer things in life.

The list goes on and on, with reoccurring similarities. The societies that focus on being in nature, appreciating time with close friends and family, and those who observe happiness in separating themselves from the fast-paced day to day top the lists of happiest cultures.

A world of possibilities

Even though these countries regularly top the list of happiest places globally, they aren’t the only places where happiness is cultivated. Even in America, where we attempt to pursue the uncapturable, states like Hawaii score high on the happiness scale.

Countries where poverty runs rampant still find joy in their daily lives. So, the answer isn’t as easy as it seems. By diving into the origins of these cultures’ happiness, we discover guidance in a world where many still consider themselves searching.


Created by

Ric Burnett

Ric Burnett is a writer currently based in Boston. He contributes regularly to The GoodMen Project and has been published in "The Ascent", "Better Marketing", and "P.S. I Love You" on Medium. Empathetic leadership, building company culture, traveling, learning about new cultures, and experiencing life drive his creative voice.







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