What’s the Secret of the Happiest People in the World?

What’s the Secret of the Happiest People in the World? April 12, 2023

July in Finland, via Mike Luotio and Unsplash

In the Apple TV show The Reluctant Traveler, host Eugene Levy explores the people, places, and cultures of several unique locations around the world. In the first episode, he “reluctantly” travels to northern Finland, home to “the happiest people in the world.”

Levy, often comically, tries his hand at ice fishing, reindeer feeding, and husky sledding. He experiences the beauty of the aurora borealis (aka the northern lights). It’s all in an attempt to uncover what the Fins define as “sisu—a state-of-mind whose attributes include a tenacity of purpose, stoic determination, grit, and resilience. As one Fin puts it, “we never give up.”

Is there a connection between sisu and the Fins’ happiness? Maybe. Their stoic mindset means their thoughts and beliefs create the world they inhabit, not external circumstances. It’s all about what’s happening inside as opposed to externally, believing that any difficulty can be overcome. Talking to several families, Levy discovers the Fins also believe their simple lives make them happy, including spending time with friends and family and outside in nature.

Is our connection to others the key to happiness?

Researchers at Harvard have reached a similar conclusion to the Finnish families featured in The Reluctant Traveler. As reported by Alison Flood in New Scientist, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest-range study of human contentment ever conducted. The director of the study stated:

The central factor that determines life satisfaction is not money or even achievement. It’s “warm connections with other people.”

The “surprising takeaway” from the study was that interactions with other human beings affects “how long you stay healthy and how long your brain will stay sharp.” It even makes you less likely to get heart disease or arthritis.

And it’s not necessary to have “a life partner or intimate partner. You can have strong connections with friends, family members, work colleagues, many different kinds of relationships.” Even casual connections, like bantering with the coffeeshop barista or grocery store clerk, can have real benefits. “Those more casual ties turn out to give us little hits of well-being.”

Does money = happiness?

As the Beatles once sang, “money can’t buy you love.” But can it bring you happiness? In a recent note in his daily newsletter, Arnold Schwarzenegger points out that a certain amount of money does make us happier. One study suggested that we need to make at least $75,000 a year—above that amount did nothing to increase our happiness. Another more recent study put the figure at over $100,000. But as Arnold points out, there’s a catch:

If you’re rich and miserable, more money won’t help. And money won’t help alleviate the suffering of life, such as loss, heartbreak, or clinical depression.

While money can make you more comfortable, comfort does not equate to happiness. Arnold states: “You can be the most comfortable person in the world and still be completely depressed.” He continues:

But if something is missing in your life, and you find that the money and the comfort it buys you don’t make you happy, my guess is you need to find a purpose. You need to be useful. I’ve known a lot of miserable, angry, rich people. Everyone I’ve ever known who knew why they were doing what they were doing every day has had a smile on their face.

One more happiness tip from Arnold: Look on the bright side.

 Schwarzenegger points to a study from researchers at Boston University and Harvard that showed being optimistic can help you live longer. And they were able to quantify it. As told in the newsletter:

The scientists found that being more positive and having hope for the future can help people live up to 15 percent longer. Not to mention, having positive vibes increases the likelihood of “exceptional longevity,” which is characterized as living to 85 or beyond. 

Other factors can affect your longevity, like genetics, how often you exercise, and whether you drink or smoke. It turns out your mindset matters, too—and can add up to a decade (or more) to your life.

Don’t feel like the optimistic type? Arnold reports that optimism is a learned trait. He suggests “spending 5 minutes per day imagining your best possible self.” That includes in your family life, your work life, and with all your personal relationships.

Or you can move to Finland. Where it seems like the Fins have uncovered what really makes us happy. Or, if you don’t have travel plans anytime soon, the good news is you can achieve the same happiness wherever you are right now.

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