Every year various organizations crunch numbers to come with rankings of the world’s happiest places. You’ve probably clicked on one of these lists, and if you’re anything like me, scratched your head at the results. It’s fascinating that countries as diverse as Denmark and Costa Rica top these rankings (apologies to my fellow Americans, but the U.S. doesn’t crack the top ten), but why are these particular places so smiley?

Figuring that out has been the particular obsession of National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner for the last 15 years, and thanks to his travel-loving employer he’s gotten the chance to investigate the question on the ground in many of these exceptionally cheerful locales. He shares his findings in his new book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, and also in a recent Knowledge@Wharton interview.

The conversation is jammed packed with insight into what makes for a happy place, including tips on how to pick your friends and structure your country’s social safety net (short version: more like Denmark, less like America). But perhaps the most fascinating insight is Buettner’s number one takeaway from his research. If you’re unhappy, he insists, pack up and move.

Time to call the movers?

That’s not the first intervention many of us would consider. Starting a gratitude journal or phoning a therapist is a lot easier and cheaper than finding a new home, packing up all your belongings, and possibly switching jobs, after all. But Buettner is serious -- he thinks way more people should consider moving as a solution to their chronic unhappiness.

"There’s no other intervention anybody can tell me about that has that dependable and lasting impact on happiness than your geography," he insists.

He’s not blind to other important factors underlying happiness, of course. Stable, loving relationships and a minimum level of prosperity that allows you to fulfill your basic needs and not waste energy constantly worrying about money are clearly deeply important for happiness too. But if you’ve got these basics covered and you’re still unhappy, it might be time to consider calling the movers.

"The most important variable in that happiness recipe, the ingredient with the most statistical variability, is where you live. If you live in an unhappy place, the best thing you can do is move to a happier place," he advises, pointing to a study of people who picked up and moved to Canada, which consistently ranks very high on happiest country lists. After one year very little else changed about their lives -- they kept their spouses, their religion, all their other demographic characteristics -- but yet were markedly happier.

It’s a startling claim given that even lottery winners and those who have suffered life-changing injuries like paralysis usually return to their previous levels of happiness. It’s hard for material circumstances, rather than attitude, to change our essential levels of well being. But Buettner insists changing location can manage it. (For what it’s worth, my experience as a person who has lived in four countries in the past 15 years suggests he’s right.-- geography matters way more than people often acknowledge.)

So where should you go?

If you’re buying this argument and you’re in a material position to consider moving, where should you go? Unless you’ve got a gig in a top ranked Nordic country lined up, chances are you’ll need to move within the States. Buettner suggests looking for cities with healthy food, walkability and lower rates of obesity, all of which correlate with higher happiness levels, probably because they signal towns where leaders have focused on quality of life rather than just economic growth.

Want more specific ideas? Buettner points to places like San Luis Obispo, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon.

"In all these places at a certain point, enlightened leaders turned away from just more development. They turned the economic energy inward to build a vibrant downtown," he argues. And according to Buettner the sociability and pleasantness of these sorts of thoughtfully developed cities are one of the strongest antidepressants available.  

Are you buying his argument? Can you outrun unhappiness or is it a case of "wherever you go, there you are"?   

Published on: Mar 13, 2018