The Happiest Places on the Planet

When planning a round the world trip, coming up with your route is often the most challenging part. We often consider potential destinations based on historical sites, culture, sightseeing, activities, and location.   But what about happiness?  The quest for happiness, like that for love, is one of the most common shared human experiences. Could we learn something from people who live longer and more satisfying lives than most, or could our own happiness be increased simply by being around them?

An organization called The Happy Planet Index has just made this easier, with the first-ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the length and contentment of life in world countries. The index doesn’t claim that all citizens of its top-rated countries are happier than everyone else, but it does show how nations can produce long, happy lives without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources. The Happy Planet Index combines life expectancy, satisfaction, and ecological footprint to process its ratings – when all three components are good, the country’s overall well-being and happiness is rated high. It aims to change the sole measure of a country’s well-being through the use of strictly economical measures such as GDP.

Eight of the top ten countries are in Latin America – a finding that might be surprising, until you consider the mindset of Latin American culture and what values are given importance. “Latin Americans report being much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family,” states HPI.

The takeaway? Having a close network of family and friends, forming intimate bonds, being social and involved in the community may lead to longer and happier lives that almost any other factor. And for indie and long-term travelers, it may be worthwhile to not only consider these places for your travel list, but to also work on establishing connections and social networks wherever your wanderings take you.

According to the HPI, the following nations top the list in world happiness:

#1 – Costa Rica (Score: 64 out of 100)

Costa Ricans report the highest life satisfaction in the world and enjoy the second-highest average life expectancy in the West (only behind Canada). Costa Ricans live slightly longer than Americans while reporting much higher levels of contentment – all with an environmental footprint less than a quarter the size. A haven of democracy and peace in turbulent Central America, Costa Rica has taken deliberate steps to reduce its environmental impact and to focus on quality of living.

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It also has the fifth-lowest human poverty index in the developing world, with clean water and adult literacy almost universal. But Costa Rica’s biggest secret may be found in the country’s motto, pura vida. Literally meaning “pure life,” citizens base their fulfillment on spending time with loved ones, doing what they most enjoy in life, and protecting their beautiful natural resources. For indie travelers, this means that although Costa Rica isn’t as cheap as some of its other Central American neighbors, there are lots of resources for long-term travelers and expats to find pura vida of their own.

Find a flight to Costa Rica and check out our San Jose Indie Travel Guide

#2 – Vietnam (Score: 71.5)

The only Eastern nation to crack the top ten, Vietnam racked up 5.8 in the well-being score and has an average life span of 75.2 years. The country’s ecological footprint of 1.4 only narrowly fails to achieve the goal of “one-planet living” – consuming a fair share of natural resources. Sociologist Andrea Fonseca says that Vietnam’s high happiness rating “has a lot to do with social imagination.” Many travelers to Vietnam remark on the creativity and enterprising nature of its residents.

But world traveler Nguyen Thanh Hien, 31, takes issue with the way the HPI uses self-scoring methods to rate overall well-being. Many people may have never experienced life in the developed world and are simply content with their lot in life regardless of Vietnam’s inequalities of income and health care.

Check out our adventure trips in Vietnam, read our Vietnam Indie Travel Guide, and read Nha Trang ― The Happiest Place in Vietnam on $30 Per Day

#3 – Colombia (Score: 59.8)

How can a country with a 40-year-long civil war, 4 million displaced people, a still-significant drug trade, and rampant poverty come in at number three? Although American and British citizens report slightly higher life satisfaction, Colombians use up considerably fewer resources to achieve a similar level. Maybe it’s just the case that Colombians are relatively free of the hand-wringing, self-important, “I had a really deep chat with my shrink last week” angst that makes Europeans constantly believe they are less happy than they should be, observes Rachel Godfrey Wood, who has lived in Colombia for over a year and holds a Masters Degree in Latin American Development.

“There is an exciting vibe within Colombia that is hard to miss,” says American Jeff Jung, who has lived there for the past several years. “The economy is growing and people can see a bright future ahead for them and their kids. Add to that a natural zest for life with lots of festivals, music events, and time with family, I can understand why Colombia ranks so highly in the survey.”

Read our Bogota Indie Travel Guide and Why You Should Ignore Everything You’ve Heard and Go to Colombia

#4 – Belize (Score: 59.3)

In the U.S., Belize is widely known as a very easy Latin American country to visit or move to. With English as its national language, unspoiled Caribbean beaches, a barrier reef that is highly rated by divers, and fascinating Mayan temples, it is a perennially popular destination for North Americans. Belize’s HPI score reflects a high life expectancy, relatively high levels of experienced well-being, and a moderate ecological footprint.

Relax, an Asian-based travel site, believes that one of the main reasons for the high satisfaction level of Belize is due to the large number of cultures that live there. And according to Shelter Offshore, a financial advice site for British Expatriates, Belize is still very affordable for travelers and expats, especially when tax breaks are taken into consideration. “You can enjoy the most laid back, yet decent standard of living in Belize on very little money,” the website states.

Find a flight to Belize City and read How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America

#5 – El Salvador (Score: 58.9)

This small Central American country even has a town called Happiness — Alegria, in the eastern part of El Salvador, literally translates to “happiness” in English. Travelers Mike and Helen said that one of the pleasures of this country was the friendliness of the people, who were constantly smiling and seemed satisfied by and large.

“The narrow streets around town would be dotted with residents, sitting on their doorsteps, and watching the world go by, or selling a few fruits on the stoop, often calling us over for a hello or a chat,” the couple said. “Nothing ever felt rushed, and there was a serenity to the way of life that it is hard to remember still exists in the 21st Century.”

Find a cheap flight to El Salvador and book a hostel in El Salvador

#6 – Jamaica (Score: 58.5)

Jamaica’s appearance in the top 10 of the HPI table comes somewhat as a surprise. It is fair to say that the country has been in some economic trouble for over 30 years, resulting in high levels of inequality and unemployment, and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Yet despite these problems, the island is able to maintain some of the best levels of health in the developing world, as indicated by its high average life expectancy. 97% of babies are born with the assistance of skilled health professionals, with only 4% underweight — a figure comparable to richer nations such as Argentina.

Most Jamaicans have access to clean water, unusual in a county with a GDP per capita one-tenth that of the USA. Together with its extremely family-oriented populace and small ecological footprint — approximately 5% of its energy is renewable —Jamaica sits towards the top of the HPI table.

Find a flight to Jamaica 

#7 – Panama (Score: 57.8)

The people of Panama report an overall well-being of 7.3 out of 10, which is relatively high. The life expectancy compares to North America, and its ecological footprint is moderate at the equivalent of three planets — not great, but not dismal either.

For travelers and expats, they seem to find happiness in Panama as well. A recent survey of expats from the United Kingdom reported that 71 percent of them felt they made the right decision and would not want to return to their home country. In 2009 Forbes Magazine rated Panama one of the top 10 places in the world in which to retire; a low cost of living, outside the hurricane and earthquake zones, Western infrastructure, and fast-growing economy all bode well.

Read How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America: Part 2 and find a flight into Panama City 

#8 – Nicaragua (Score: 57.1)

South African native Peta Kaplan, who has lived in Nicaragua for the past number of years with her husband, Ben Sandzer-Bell, says that Nicaraguans are exceptionally friendly, welcoming, and outgoing. “Nicaragua has had a difficult history, and perhaps this is what makes its people so happy… Happy that there is no war, happy that the conflict and struggles that left marks and wounds on every family are a thing of the past. Or perhaps Nicaraguans are just naturally a happy lot, for the most part.”

The country also has a low ecological footprint, at only 1.6, and it is this awareness of resources that has partly helped Kaplan and Sandzer-Bell found their sustainable housing company, CO2 Bambu. “Nature is never far and natural beauty and being surrounded by it, makes many people, including me, happy,” Kaplan adds.

Look for hostels in Nicaragua and read Caribbean Without the Cost: 5 Great Beach Spots in Latin America

#9 – Venezuela (Score: 56.9)

Although this South American nation is often cited for its high levels of corruption, a study commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness ranked Venezuela as one of the happiest countries. The government spends more than 60 percent of its income on free clinics, social welfare programs and educational initiatives, and according to sociologist Hector Sanchez, this high social spending is a big reason why Venezuelans are generally happy.

Find a flight to Caracas and read 10 Places in South America to Escape the Northern Winter

#10 – Guatemala (Score: 56.9)

Life expectancy is where Guatemala ranks lowest, with the estimate being between 60–75 years. This falls in the middling range and is what brings the country’s score below Costa Rica. When it comes to life satisfaction; however, Guatemalans are right there at the top, reporting 7.4 on a scale of 1-10 for being “satisfied with their life.” The nation also comes in under the minimums for one-planet living, consuming resources at a rate of less than one planet’s worth.

And how does the United States fare? Below the middle, with a score of 37.3 in the 105th place behind Turkmenistan, Ethiopia, and even Sudan. This is largely due to our poor use of resources; we are consuming resources as if we had seven planets to live from. Clearly, money isn’t everything — although plenty of poor countries fell at the bottom of the list, most of the top 20 are not rich countries. Perhaps the European and North American focus on consumerism is actually making us less happy.

Read 6 Ways to Have an Indie Experience in Guatemala and A Guide to Visiting Maya Ruins in Central America



Every week, on “Round the World Wednesday” we share tips for planning, budgeting and selecting a route, plus advice on where to go and what to see and do all around the world.

Photo Credits:  Luz Adriana Villa A., motoyen, joiseyshowaa, Svs220anoldent, runkalicious, Kent MacElwee, ruurmoUS Navy, all other photos courtesy of Keith Hajovksy

Leave a Comment

  • Erika Haines said at 2012-12-16T21:36:57+0000: Don't forget Puerto Rico, the Isle of Enchantment! People there are *so* nice...
  • Aaron Mai said at 2012-09-27T01:41:55+0000: As soon as you land at the airport of Vietnam, you will immediately recognize hundreds and hundreds eyes looking at you to show that "you are warmly welcomed". Don't be shy to give them back friendly glances because right away you will receive a smile from them although you have not known each others before. Our happiness show in our eyes, not a cold ones like many developed country. Just pay us a visit and experience by yourselves.
  • Sandy Smith Seale said at 2012-10-03T14:51:53+0000: Great article. I love to travel, anywhere, anytime. And thinking about those happy places only make the decision which one to travel too easier. Happy.....Good :)
  • Paul Elverstone said at 2012-09-26T17:28:00+0000: It's an interesting article on the most subjective of topics. I am - I must say - rather pleased at the abundance of Latin American countries present as that reflects my own experiences while I was there. Two things really stood out every time I visited a new Latin American destination: the importance of family and the presence of a communal square. Used in conjunction with one another, these family ties with a strong community spirit and I think 'Happiness' is well on its way...
  • Dhesney Dhez said at 2012-12-19T22:21:02+0000: How is consumption of resouces related to happiness?
  • The Drifter Journals said at 2012-12-20T07:10:43+0000: I knew there was a reason why I loved Latin America so much!
  • Sylvia Seschel said at 2012-12-13T00:12:47+0000: I've been lucky to have had to visit all but 2 countries on this list. I went to Vietnam in 2000, at time when people asked me "Why do you want to go there?" Now everyone and their uncle is going and I'm glad I beat the flock of tourists. I'd love to go back to Vietnam as due to circumstances I missed seeing two places but hey, maybe someday I will return. There's just so many places to visit and not enough MONEY and TIME.
  • Liz Lomax said at 2012-11-30T10:25:12+0000: I'm very surprised that any article about a happiness index doesn't even mention Bhutan, which I undrestand to be pretty much the country that invented the concept of measuring happiness rather than wealth..
  • Worldtravelfamily said at 2012-09-26T19:10:53+0000: I'm wondering why Bhutan isn't on the list. I would have thought it's policy of gross national happiness would have gone some way towards raising spirits. I haven't been (yet) so I can't comment. On my travels it is always noticeable how happy people are in what we, in the west, traditionalyl think of as poor or deprived countries, they are richer in so many ways.
  • Peter Mak said at 2012-09-26T21:29:34+0000: I'm going to Nicaragua next month to learn how to surf. Glad to see its one of the happiest places to be. Come to think of it, I'm already pretty happy to be going.
  • Nicaragua Experience said at 2012-10-01T05:54:50+0000: Great read!
  • Márcia Pacheco said at 2012-09-26T15:08:58+0000: Hawai is an amazing and happy place to visit and live.