I was once gifted a very pleasant book to read, it was called Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner. This book, published initially in January 2008, is a thrilling journey on most of the recent studies conducted by some very prestigious universities and institutions. The book talks about happiness, and where is it that you can find this famous ‘Bliss‘ that we all crave, nowadays. Of course, one should perhaps start by working around the very definition of happiness. What a huge idea, isn’t it?  It could mean so many different aspects for all of us. 

No need to lose hope, scientists across the globe have put together a pretty clear set of measurable parameters, so they could somewhat agree on some sort of initial study regarding Happiness, and generate what it then started to be called GNH, the Gross National Happiness Index or Level.

To establish some sort of framework, certain key parameters were introduced. These institutions seem to agree on what creates a higher or lower level of happiness, these parameters are:

1. Material well-being as measured by GDP per capita (in U$D). Not uniquely, but for sure your level of income can somewhat determine how comfortably you can be buying services or goods that can make your life safer, or more comfortable.

2. Life expectancy at birth. 

3. The quality of family life, based primarily on divorce rates.

4. The state of political freedoms, we often take this one way too much for granted in western societies. 

5. Job security (measured by the unemployment rate). 

6. Climate (measured by two variables: the average deviation of minimum and maximum monthly temperatures from 14 degrees Celsius; and the number of months in the year with less than 30mm rainfall). 

7. Personal physical security ratings (based primarily on recorded homicide rates and ratings for risk from crime and terrorism).

8. Quality of community life (based on membership in social organizations).

9. Governance (measured by ratings for corruption).

10. Gender equality (measured by the share of women holding seats in national Houses of Assembly). This point should be updated towards Diversity today.

Ok, so this is more or less how busy people in laboratories wearing a white lab coat, determine what the word Happiness means, for them at least.

In the book I mentioned, the author went to spend a decent amount of time visiting and interviewing people involved in those researches, in what was at the time, the countries considered to be the ones providing the highest level of happiness to their citizens and inhabitants. I won’t go on and spoil the book too much for you, in case you are inspired to read it, but it is surprising that about 12 years after the release of that book, there has been some tiny miny fluctuations, but pretty much the top 10 on that list, are the same, with perhaps some differences only in their order. 

I felt pretty much stateless since I was a child. It is a very curious condition to live in, I admit. My parents are both Persian, they escaped Iran back in 1979 and they moved to a small city in the south of Tuscany. I was raised in their native language, Farsi, only to learn Italian in kindergarten at age 4. For many reasons, until today (I am 34 at the moment of writing this article) I was not able to visit the country of my parents. So it is very strange to grow in a country, learn its language, even get a University degree there, but then at home, have a sort of different culture, tradition, way of communication and standard of living. They say Persians are nomads in their DNA, this is how I explain why in my life I felt the push to explore. I lived in Italy, Argentina, Brazil, USA and now I have been “trying” to put some roots in Madrid, Spain, for the last 7 years it seems like this city is home to me. 

A famous Persian saying states “The sky is blue wherever you go”, meaning that your happiness is probably due to so many different factors that in a big portion, are personal, and intimate, not so much external. Probably living in a jungle or a large city does provide a gigantic difference in terms of lifestyle, but if you are reading this article I suppose you are probably living in a large city in Western society, and roughly there are many structural similarities among them, broadly speaking.

Well, this article is precisely about this. 2020 is water under the bridge now, so let’s explore together, what can be the decisive factors for choosing a new start, perhaps in a new country, in 2021.

Now that we sort of defined what happiness means for science, and just before we start, let’s give a quick look at history. In 1988, based on very similar parameters exposed before, the Quality-of-Life Index was created. So these are sort of the oldest stats we have on how was the world doing in terms of happiness levels, about 33 years ago. You can find the link at the end of this article if you are curious to read more about this.

In 1988 the happiest countries in the world to live in were:

1. United States

2. France

3. West Germany

4. Italy

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Hong Kong

8. United Kingdom

9. Sweden

10. the Netherlands

11. South Korea

12. Austria

13. Norway

14. Switzerland

15. Belgium

and in 2020 they are:

1. Australia

2. Switzerland

3. Norway

4. Singapore

5. New Zealand

6. Sweden

7. Denmark

8. Netherlands

9. Canada

10. Ireland

11. Finland

12. Hong Kong

13. Austria

14. Germany

15. Belgium

Isn’t it very interesting to see how certain countries resisted in the top 15 list, whereas others were replaced by totally different ones? Of course, it is a very long-time frame, sure, but still, climbing to the top of the BEST 15 chart in just 32 years is pretty remarkable. 

Now we have a clearer idea of the landscape of what was in 2020 the Happiest countries to live in, for a variety of reasons, going from unemployment rates, yearly incomes, levels of crime, numbers of divorce, how much it rains each year among other factors already stated above. I find it very thought-provoking that other matters are not taken into consideration, raising a very statistical problem of course. The world changes, and so do the habits of its inhabitants, but how to update the parameters then, without breaking the continuity and the capacity to compare with the previous years. We simply can’t add or remove the main factors we take into consideration every few years, otherwise, we couldn’t compare it with the past. 

Some years ago, in the capital of Buthan, Thimphu, a meeting was held, chaired by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and Jeffrey Sachs. The purpose of it was to plan for a United Nations High-Level Meeting on ‘Well-Being and Happiness’ held at the UN Head Quarters in April 2012. The first World Happiness Report was prepared in support of that meeting, bringing together the available global data on national happiness and reviewing evidence from the emerging science of happiness.

The preparation of this first report was based on the studies held at Columbia University, with the support of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Although the editors and authors were volunteers, administrative and research support costs, were covered through a series of research grants from international sponsors. 

Although the reports (you can find the latest 2020 in the notes, at the end of this article) have been based on a wide variety of data, the most important source has been the Gallup World Poll, a very famous American company providing statistics pretty much about anything you can dream of. The range and comparability of its global series of annual surveys are pretty much impossible to beat. The life evaluations from the Gallup World Poll provide the basis for the annual happiness rankings that have always spurred widespread interest. Believe it or not, humans did not ask themselves for too long: “how can I possibly become happier?”. Many science disciplines focused on how to make you healthier, richer, wiser, keep you functional despite a depression, so you can grab your butt and get to work somehow. But happy? Not really.

I’ve enjoyed greatly this amazing free online course based on all the latest research and information regarding the science of happiness. It’s from Laurie Santos, a rockstar Yale University professor. You can find the link here (https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being). This course is also special for another reason, it is one of the most popular online courses ever created, in history! About any subject! Beautiful that Yale has decided to share it with the world for free. Check it out, valuable stuff. 

Ok, so where should you decide to live in 2021 in case you are looking for some change in your life? We have seen which KPIs scientists use, we’ve seen the top rankings and how they have evolved throughout time. The science of happiness, which is just moving its first baby steps as we speak (20-30 years in any discipline it’s a short time frame), is just starting to draw some initial shy conclusions. Neuroscience studies have strongly drifted towards this direction also. 

We’ve seen the top-ranked countries on the list, but which are the top 5 factors that you will take into consideration? What makes your environment, pleasant, positive… happy? Maybe it matters how close you will be to the beach? Maybe how likely it will be to find a job once you get there. If the country/city is strong on eco-sustainability is that something important for you? Maybe how sunny that specific city is, could turn out to be of crucial importance to you (it surely was for me!).

Not sure if this will serve you as a reference, but I have moved nations about 12 times, towards the same six cities though, onto three different continents. My experience is that your happiness is based on several factors that you can nurture, pretty much everywhere you go. The sky is blue everywhere you go, remember?

I strongly suggest you, find a comfortable house to live in, where you can truly feel home. A lot will have to do with how you decorate it, so do spend some time with a friend that has the taste, to add a few frames up the wall. 

You simply must find your own family abroad. Invest your time developing valuable friendships, having meaningful connections throughout your week will change everything, believe me. We are social animals. 

Half to a third of your days and weeks, revolve around work, so you better find one that you somewhat enjoy, especially if you are an ex-pat I would say. Avoid toxic working environments, life is too short, don’t waste it. It is more than ok to find a temporary landing job just to start to get to know people and for cashflow, but within the year you should shift to work that doesn’t make you hate Mondays.

Hobbies are a huge one. Better if they involve some sport, outdoor, or a group of people. This also helps you in your social aspect. 2X1.

I’m very sensitive to grey weather, so the number of sunny days was always a big one for me. Access to nature could also be very relevant for you perhaps, finishing work and having a run on the beach is not a bad luxury to have, is it? Maybe you could change the nation and living set-up. From large city to mountain life?

For sure 2020 raised a ton of very deep questions inside us all.

We could overwhelm you ultimately with gazillion statistics, numbers, charts, and research. But the truth is that home is where your heart is. Only you can know where is best to live in 2021. Which are the main differentiating factors for you, what touches a chord inside. 2020 has been a very unique year for so many reasons, no need for me to go through them again. Many of us maybe lost our jobs, maybe, we lost a dear one as well.

But perhaps true friends, relatives, and co-workers also made a step forward, offering us some comfort, with just a videocall maybe. They were there and made us feel at home, right when we needed them the most. 

I hope that this article provided you with some answers, but even more importantly, I hope that it provided you with the right questions. Only you can answer them, so I wish you the best of luck and a happy adventure in 2021… 

For more information visit these other sources:

The World Happiness Report 2020: https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/

List of Rankings of 2020 and 1988:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where-to-be-born_Index#2020_rankings

A great interactive index that you can also sort out based on your favorite parameters:

https://index.goodcountry.org/

And some other sources:

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/13/i-took-yales-most-popular-class-ever-and-it-completely-changed-how-i-spend-my-money.html

https://ericweinerbooks.com/about-me/interview-geography-of-bliss/

Written by,

Arash Palizban, Partner Director, InHunt World