It’s impossible not to address this subject with a little bit of humor and – why not? – a romantic point of view. I know that you are all probably thinking the same thing: How could someone rate the level of happiness of an entire nation? Truth is, this is a subject that has been going around for quite some time and there are many who have lists and rankings of their own. The United Nations releases the World Happiness Report every year on which they rank 156 countries by their happiness levels. Philosophically, happiness can’t be measured or quantified (for now!) but based in certain parameters like generosity, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and other econometric indexes, the United Nations are giving it a fair try.
The Differences Between Happy and Unhappy Countries
The main characteristic happy countries have and unhappy countries doesn’t is the freedom to make choices of individual citizens. Some might say that this is the first step towards happiness, and it sounds like a normal thing for people living in developed nations, but truth is often disappointing and in countries like Burundi, Syria, Togo or Guinea, having the power to make your own choices is a luxury that only a handful of people have.
Not being able to make life choices doesn’t mean “slavery.” A failed society and economy can restrict an individual causing not only discontent but also a very poor quality of life. This leads to the second characteristic: life expectancy. In rich countries people live longer, the opposite happens in poor countries. However, the highest life expectancy award belongs to the happiest countries, which aren’t necessarily the richest.
Another important feature is safety. The happiest countries in the world are some of the safest and exactly the reverse happens in unhappy countries. A high murder rate and deaths from internal conflicts or wars have a huge and negative weight on the scale of happiness. Most countries at the bottom of the United Nation’s list are going through some rough and violent time.
The fourth characteristic I’d like to mention might not sound as important next to the three mentioned above, but it’s a pattern that can’t be ignored. The top 10 happiest countries according to the World Happiness Report show that their citizens are pleased with their governments. This means low corruption perception, successful policies and in most cases, fewer economic regulations. On the other hand, countries with turbulent political climate, corrupted governments, and tight regulations show to be the less happy in the global ranking.
My Perception of the Happiest Countries
I came across this excellent book by Eric Weiner, called The Geography of Bliss and the whole topic about the happiest places on earth stuck with me. This entertaining book, filled with humor and personal reflections, isn’t a travel guide to find destinations where people live a happy life. it’s more of a statement about how our surroundings mold us, and how different societies and cultures need more or less things to be happy or not. Weiner’s perspective for this book is very interesting because before writing it he dedicated part of his life to cover catastrophes all around the world. Years later he decided that it was time to tell, in his own words, “the other part of the story” taking a whole year to travel to all kinds of destinations, meeting people, and discovering the truth behind the categorization of contentment.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many of the countries listed on that book and the ones ranked by the World Happiness Report, but I must say that I disagree with some of them. In this article I would like to make a list of my own, ranking the countries that I believe, in my humble opinion, are the happiest.
At Nomad Capitalist we believe that happiness can be both a personal decision and a destination.
How can it be a personal decision? This is subjective of course, because each and every one of us is different, and with philosophical matters there’s no absolute answer, but in my perspective, one can always choose its own direction. Setting goals is definitely the best way to start ‘taking control’ of your live. Easier said than done, right? However, realizing that in the journey joy can also be found is key.
All of this relies on the fact that you are able to make your own choices and you aren’t bounded to an external situation restricting you from doing so, which is the case for millions of people around the world living in precarious conditions or endangered by political terror, internal conflicts or war.
How is it a destination? I’m a digital nomad and a perpetual traveler who visits between 15 and 20 countries every year, so I don’t feel an attachment to an specific geographic location. I’m continuously searching for better experiences and trying to move forward in life. A clear example of this are the millions of immigrants and expats around the world who leave their countries to find better opportunities and overall, a better life. Of course, when we think about immigrants we automatically think about people fleeing bad situations but that’s not always the case.
In countries like Norway, Finland or Denmark (three of the happiest countries in the world according to the World Happiness Report) many young people go beyond their borders not to find a better place to live, but to find the “right” place for them and better opportunities fit to their skills and tastes. Sometimes that place might be thousands of kilometers away, but the point is that living in the happiest country doesn’t necessarily mean that you are entirely happy there. That’s where our services at Nomad Capitalist come into play. For example, it is within my entrepreneurial nature to look for emerging markets like Georgia, and for a particular business venture that might be the perfect destination for many. That doesn’t mean that people there are the happiest, actually, quite the opposite according to the World Happiness Report on which Georgia is ranked 128.
On the other hand, there are countries like Malaysia (rank: 35), Indonesia (rank: 96) or Philippines (rank: 71) where their nationals seem genuinely happy. This is a matter of perspective of course, but that’s the vibe any visitor would get, plus they are very expat-friendly.
In the World Happiness Report from 2018 they included a second list of the happiest countries in the world for immigrants. I believe this is very important too, especially with recent events in third world countries causing millions of people to leave their homes searching for better opportunities elsewhere. Immigrants will always be the minority of a countries population, but the cultural diversity they bring is a positive feature that every day more nations seem to acknowledge. By that I don’t mean that every country should open its doors to everyone just like that. What I’m saying is that migrations are inevitable and catastrophes are inevitable; that’s why everyone should learn how to deal with those situations and make the best out of them. Finland is the 2018 happiest country for local born residents and for immigrants as well. There’s a consistency that’s not as common as it should be, but the rest of the world is slowly getting there.
For my list I’m going to mention important data of every country followed by my personal opinion and experience visiting them. It’s important to remember that many of these numbers and stats are continuously changing and they need to be checked regularly.
I’ve been talking about this country for many years because I really like it. What I always remark is the low cost of living and the possibility to live a life of abundance for a reasonable price. Being an Spanish and English colony, many aspects of their culture won’t collide with ours. That’s something to take in consideration especially if you are thinking about traveling there searching for business opportunities. Unlike other countries from Asia, westerns citizens won’t feel that segregated.
Philippines has a population of 103.3 million, with an average salary of $11,900 per year ($991 per month) and a GDP per capita over $2,000. Life expectancy is 68.41 years. English is one of the official languages and most of its population is bilingual. Unemployment rate: from 2007’s 3.43 percent it has eased to 2.78 percent. Poverty rates declined from 26.6 percent in 2006 to 21.6 percent in 2015.
Filipinos are very warm and welcoming, their laid-back way of living makes it a great vacation spot. Moreover, some of its main cities are filled with digital nomads and expats from many different countries who found their ideal place to live and work. For me, the happiest countries also need to be the more optimistic, and Filipinos are among the most hopeful and optimistic people in the world. They really know how to have fun and seem to enjoy life better than most Asian countries.
Their economy has improved considerably for the past decade, and you feel that sense of pride on the streets of cities like Manila. They might not be at the top of a UN list, but they have a recently found confidence that is boosting their possibilities and making them better everyday.
This is another great destination for world travelers, digital nomads and expats, particularly Kuala Lumpur, a city where I’m actually invested in. As a growing economy and emerging market, the cost of living has gone up for the past decade, but it’s still cheap for Western standards, making it possible to have a high living standard for a very reasonable price.
31.19 million people live in Malaysia, with a minimum salary of $240 and a GDP per capita of $9,945. Life expectancy is 74.88 years. The official language is Malay but you can get by with English without so much trouble. Unemployment rate: 3.42 percent. Approximately 0.6 percent of Malaysia’s population live below the national poverty line.
If you are a fan of beautiful skylines with amazing skyscrapers like me, Kuala Lumpur will leave you bowled over. It is a very international city where people from every corner of Asia and Oceania go to visit, live, work and invest. Being the fourth richest country in Southern Asia, and an emerging global transit hub, I often visit Malaysia. For some time now I’ve recommend it for my clients at Nomad Capitalist as a wonderful vacation spot, and also as a interesting place to invest. Over the years I’ve made good connections there with very nice hard-working people. Malays have a general positive attitude and a cheerful nature, that’s why they seem to me a very happy country.
There’s plenty of room to improve for Malaysia and they are well aware of this. knowing what needs to be done is for me the best thing about Malays and In my opinion they have set very positive and possible goals for the near future of their country. It is healthy for a nation to be aware of its deficiencies and strengths, and with a lot of enthusiasm they are working hard to become better.
This is the 10th happiest nation according to the World Happiness Report and in my opinion, it could be a few steps closer to the top. It is a unique destination with endless landscapes, beautiful cities, and happy people everywhere you go. Despite of being far from practically everything, Australia is common choice among expats because of its welcoming atmosphere and multiculturalism.
Australia’s population is 24.7 million and they have one of the highest federal minimum wages in the world: $18,93 an hour, or $694,9 a week. Its GDP per capita is $49,920. Life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, 82.5 years. Australia’s official language is English, being the majority of the expats living there from the United States and the United Kingdom. Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent. Over 13 percent of its population live below the internationally accepted poverty line.
Unlike the previous countries listed in this article, Australia has the 12th highest cost of living in the world. Consider that the United States and the UK are behind at 21st and 23rd place. Sydney is beautiful city that everyone should visit at least once, but the high costs make it a not-so-popular destination for expats or digital nomads. Adelaide on the other hand is gaining popularity as it continues to grow and develop receiving thousands of visitors every year.
Tourism represents 3 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product. Its nationals are used to meet people from all around the world and with a laid-back vibe you’ll feel embraced right away. Australia’s most heavily populated areas are near the sea. That might have something to say about the lifestyle anyone would find there.
It takes only a few minutes within its coastline to realize that Australia is a very happy nation. They are very optimistic about their country and if you ask around, people there will ensure that it is the best country to live in.
Let’s travel now to the opposite corner of the map and talk a little bit about another wonderful destination. Canada is ranked 7th in the World Happiness Report, 11 countries over its southern neighbor, the United States. Cities with the perfect combination of excitement and relaxation are only a few hours away from spectacular landscapes away from the crowd. silent and ideal to clear your mind.
Canada’s population is 36.95 million, with an average wage of $27.7 per hour and a GDP per capita of $42,158. They have one of the highest healthy life expectancies in the world: 82.14 years in 2015. It is also an English speaking country but French is also an official language. Unemployment rate: 5.8 percent. 13.9 percent of their population live under the nations poverty line (anyone with an income 50 percent lower than the average).
It’s very common for US citizens to travel to their northern neighbor to buy prescription drugs since their whole health care system is considerably cheaper than the US’s. Canada has considerably lower taxes than it’s northern competitors on this list (between 15% and 33%). Being the second largest country in the world, there’s plenty of space to travel within their borders, an activity Canadians enjoy very much.
Some say the cold might have a negative impact in an individual’s happiness, but the top happiest countries in the world are way up north and most of them have very strong winters. Canada gets really cold a few months a year, but it’s just another thing they seem to enjoy. They are a proud nation and just like Australians, they will guarantee that they are the happiest country in the world to anyone who asks them.
This is one of the most remote countries in the world and it has the lowest population density in Europe with 3.3 people per sq. km. Mountains, volcanos, cliffs, beaches, crystal-clear water between tectonic plates and easy going people is pretty much what you will find there. However, they are a modern nation with a rooted sense of self-improvement and that’s why they stand tall in front of the international community as one of the best places in the world to live.
This Nordic island country has a population of 348,580 and it has only 103,000 square km. With no federal minimum wage, the average salary is $2900 and the GDP per capita is about $59,970. Iceland has the second highest life expectancy in Europe (82.7 years) only surpassed by Switzerland (83.4).`They present one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world with only 2,7 percent and only 8 percent live below the poverty line (anyone with an income below $1,386.92 per month).
Iceland has virtually no corruption and its government supports free trade like few others do. it’s one of the safest countries in the world for nomads and in 2017 they received 2,195,271 visitors (flights to Iceland aren’t that pricey if you live in Europe). I found Icelanders to be very committed to their communities and very proud of their country. They are the fourth happiest country of 2018 and they’ve been within the top 10 for years. It’s definitely an expat-friendly country, especially if you have a European passport and you are willing to learn at least the basics of their language. Still, most of its population speak English and despite of being so far away from everything they are well aware of the world and have very high standards of living (even for Europe).
All of this sounds great, of course, but what I find the most attractive about Iceland are its low taxes, free health care and free education. They are an example for the rest of the world, showing that a country doesn’t need much to be great. Another fun fact about iceland that I found very interesting is that they are the most published country per capita in the world, with 1 every 10 citizens writing at least one book.
2. The Netherlands
Now with a much more renowned country, The Netherlands is famous for its liberal culture, being pioneers in many things that most parts of the world still consider taboo. It is a nation filled with flowers, colors and many kilometers of flat grounds, but with a very modern society that allures millions of visitors every year.
17.25 million people live in the Netherlands, and the average salary is about $3,300 per month being the minimum salary $1,822 per month. The GDP per capita is $45,294.78. Life expectancy is near 82 years. They are in a pretty good row since 2014 when their unemployment rate had a pick at 7.9 percent, but it has decrease considerably since then to a 3.9 percent. Currently there’s a 14 percent of people below the national poverty line, a little bit high for one of the happiest countries in Europe, but the cost of living varies considerably between Amsterdam and the rest of the country, being the capital the most expensive city to live in. Because of its geographic location, most people in the Netherlands speak at least two languages: 90% speaks English and 71% speak German and 29% speak French.
Last year, the Netherlands reached a new record of visitors of 17.6 million. They are very well used to host foreigners and welcome immigrants, and the Dutch are well known for their easy-going nature. It’s a pretty healthy nation that motivates its citizens to do outdoors activities until the point where bikers have a priority over pedestrians on the sidewalks. That’s right, walk with your eyes wide open throughout Amsterdam, you might get hit by a bike. Other than that, it is a very colorful nation with many young people having fun during the night, and the more senior citizens enjoying daylight. With
One thing I don’t like very much about this country are the taxes. Depending on the income level, a citizen can pay up to 52 percent of its salary. However, knowing how to bypass this extremely high taxes is a common thing among the Dutch.
The Netherlands is a progressive and proud nation where even immigrants feel happy. They have been within the top 10 happiest countries in the world for years, and in 2018 they came in sixth place between Canada and Switzerland.
This is the winner for the 2018 happiest country according to the World Happiness Report and we definitely need to talk a little about it. This wouldn’t be my first choice, but let’s trust the UN Sustainable Development Solution Network’s research for moment and mention all that’s good about Finland besides its immense forests. Let’s start with some stats and important numbers about the Finns.
With a small population of 5.54 million people spread unevenly throughout 338,145 square km of some of the most beautiful views in the world. They have an average salary of $3.350 and a GDP per capita of $47,057. They have a life expectancy of 81.4 years. The unemployment rate went down from 9.4 percent (2015) to 8.4 percent this year. 6 percent of the population in Finland live below the poverty line. Finnish is the official language, but 70% of the population speaks English.
Finland is another country where both born residents an immigrants claim to be genuinely happy. They have to pay very high taxes every year (over 50% of their salaries), but like its Scandinavian neighbors they have free healthcare from the moment they are born, and high education is also free. With the best educational system in Europe, they offer numerous scholarships to foreign students too.
They are one of the richest countries in Europe with a very diversified economy. For years, their main export were forest products, but the growth of their economy reduced the pulp and paper industry share considerably. Nowadays, their electronic and electrotechnic industry is one of the biggest in the world.
Finland was named the safest, the most stable and the freest country in the world by several organizations. Maybe it’s the cold weather that brings Finns together, and that’s why they are very socially conscious and it is within their nature to be generous and supportive, feature shared with their Scandinavian neighbors also at the top 10 happiest countries in the world.
Like I said before, this a very personal list. Malaysia and the Philippines are nowhere near the top happiest countries according to the United Nations, but sometimes it isn’t all about the indexes and positive stats. I like to mention countries with high hopes and dreams of becoming great and with huge potential. For me, those high hopes contribute to the positive energy of a nation and it’s almost palpable the pride their citizens feel whenever they achieve new and simple goals. Not every country in the world is moving forward, but those making an effort to do it deserve recognition from the international community.
Sometimes happiness is innate in an individual or a society and some countries (even poor countries) have that genuine sense of happiness and they settle for less than we are used to and consider them backward.
Still, the dominant nations of this lists also deserve to be mentioned so they can be used as an example for the rest of the world. The main economic powers like China, Russia, or the United States, are very far as a society from countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, or Australia. That’s why I always recommend those destinations to my clients so they can experience by themselves what it feels like to live in an actually great nation.
From an entrepreneur point of view maybe not all of the countries mentioned in this article represent good investment opportunities, but they should always be in the sight of nomads and business people, because their decisions and actions have an impact in the world and that creates new opportunities for us all.