Learn your geography
50 Denmark: By consistently topping the world happiness charts, Denmark has rubbished the idea that endorphins live in sunny places next to the sea. Danmark, as the locals spell it, is a coastal country all right, but it has an average annual temperature of 8 degree Celsius. So what makes it the happiest place on the planet? The answer apparently lies in low expectations. With a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $37,200 (around Rs18.6 lakh), pre-recession figures and the lowest Gini coefficient—a measure of income inequality within a population, with zero signifying complete equality—in the world, citizens have little unmet in the “want” area. Hamlet, the brooding prince of Denmark, has left the building, but the Little Mermaid is still there and travellers are welcome at the picturesque cities and Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred restaurants, the most in any Scandinavian country.
Happiest export: Fairy tales, the Hans Christian Andersen kind.
51 Iceland: The farthest west you can get in Europe without falling into the North Atlantic, Iceland’s most distinguishing feature is perhaps its people: 94% are of Nordic or Celtic ancestry, making for one of the most homogeneous populations in the world. Iceland’s great outdoors are still a work in progress, dotted by active volcanoes and geysers, fjords and lava landscapes where US astronauts practised their moonwalk. For city birds, capital Reykjavik is a must-stop, a capsule of energy and entertainment. Eric Weiner, author of the best-selling book, The Geography of Bliss, says that despite Iceland’s troubled financial situation, the happiness quotient hasn’t changed (read his full interview on page L15).
Must carry: A swimsuit, whatever the season, if you are to take advantage of the country’s innumerable geothermal pools, where water temperatures hover around 25 degree Celsius.
52 Switzerland: Long before middle-of-the-road became fashionable, Switzerland had staked its claim to the position with the signpost “Neutral”. But the Alps within its borders has some of the highest peaks of the range and the country is now the favourite destination of extreme adventure-fiends. Snowkiting, which uses a large, controllable kite to propel the rider, is the latest rage in the mountains, and is well worth the hefty learning fees (upwards of €200, or around Rs13,500, for a two-day course, inclusive of meals and accommodation). We aren’t sure if neutrality makes for happiness (the unkind would call it sitting on the fence), but a little living on the edge never did any harm.
Be wary of: Envy. The Swiss consider envy to be the worst enemy of contentment.
53 Canada: The only North American country to make it to multiple “happiest” lists and one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Canada conducted its own satisfaction survey in 2006 and found that money contributes to but is not responsible for happiness. A CBS News report quoted survey designer Pierre Coté as saying that New Brunswick (78.6 out of 100) rated “spirituality” higher than anywhere else—this despite possessing one of the worst-performing economies in the country. So, odds for a happy holiday are pretty good anywhere in Canada. With most of the population concentrated along the border with the US, that leaves vast open spaces for mountaineering, hiking, paddling, skiing and polar bear and/or northern lights watching.
Must do: Go kayaking around the Vancouver islands.
54 Puerto Rico: Afloat in the Caribbean, the rectangle of Puerto Rico is almost a cliché in the happiest places chart—a tropical climate, little seasonal variations, colourful cocktails garnished with umbrel las, a population density that makes the tourism industry one of the most highly serviced, and one of the most thriving economies of the region. Its USP, however, is its blend of four distinct cultures—Native American, Spanish, African and North American—which creates a hippy, trippy party vibe.
Must visit: The “Cathedral of Rum” as Casa Bacardi, the Bacardi rum distillery, is better known. Visit www.casabacardi.org for details.
55 Colombia: In the popular imagination, the country may still be represented by cocaine and drug cartels. At the ground level, neighbours worry about getting tainted by the drug wars. Despite that, Colombia has strong records in literacy, life expectancy and, till this year, positive economic growth. Travellers who overlook advisory taboos can access landscape hitherto familiar only through the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Beyond Bogota (and Marquez’s fictional Macondo), they discovered the country’s sprawling national parks and UN World Heritage Sites, jungles and waterfalls.
Happiness takeaway: Colombian coffee beans that make a heavy, intensely aromatic, pure Arabica brew.
56 Northern Ireland: Yet another part of the world that’s got more bad press than good in recent years, Northern Ireland benefited from British generosity and MNC investment till recent events sent unemployment figures spiralling to the highest level in 30 years. Yet, because of the small size of the economy, the unemployment rate is 4.1% (July-September 2008), way below the European Union’s (EU) 6.9%. Like Colombia, part of its allure lies in its inaccessibility so far and NI (as the newspaper headlines call it) is still getting used to its newfound popularity. But the basic hospitality of the people and the dramatic countryside—the result of being under an ice sheet for most of the last Ice Age—more than make up for it.
Must see: The political murals on Falls Road and the Peace Wall, both in Belfast.
57 The Bahamas: Two thousand cays and 700 islands—what could possibly get people down in a geography that’s a synonym for a good time? The Bahamas have their problems like the rest of us—a recent negative rating by Standard and Poor’s hasn’t helped—but free sun, sea and sand can go a long way in smoothing the worry lines. Then there’s the islands’ infectious brand of music, a Creole pastiche of reggae and dub, locally called “culture”. It’s hard to listen to it and not start dancing—if, that is, you can tear yourself away from the 3,542km long coastline bordering the North Atlantic ocean between Florida and Cuba.
Happiness takeaway: 140 proof Bahamian rum. If you can convince the customs guys it’s not an explosive.
58 Bhutan: The only country in the world to believe in gross national happiness, Bhutan also happens to be one of the most beautiful Himalayan nations, nestled in the eastern tip of the range. Generations of following a protectionist approach have nurtured the natural wealth of the country and given the people a unique national identity. And there has been a strong focus on maintaining the natural environment. Perhaps more than anything else Buddhism characterizes the country, its teachings meshing well with the contained, contented nature of its people. It is a country like no other.
Must try: Ema datshi, a red-hot concoction of local cheese and green chillies, usually served with red rice.
59 Brunei: Somewhat like Bhutan, Brunei has been ruled by the same family for six centuries. But, uniquely, it is the only one in the list to be under the absolute power of the sultan. It also lacks a free press—an important criterion in most evaluations of happiness. However, extensive oil and natural gas reserves give it one of the highest per capita GDPs in Asia. Now the sultanate is set to use its wealth to give Brunei a place on the world tourism map. The biggest upcoming event is the Brunei Senior Masters golf tournament, a part of the European Seniors Tour, scheduled to be held in February on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.
Must visit: The Sungei Liang nature park in Temburong, where canopy tours take you up close to the Dipterocarp forest.
60 Shorten your vacation -
Graphic designer Rohit Chaudhary, 25, decided the long vacations just interrupt his work schedule too much, and often wind up costing far more money. So he and his girlfriend head out once a month on “mini-vacations”. They leave on Friday night, cram in hiking time in the hills and come back Monday morning, refreshed from being away from New Delhi, but not too disoriented to get back to work. A recent favourite was to Kodiya, where they stayed at the Ambiya Mountain Paradise (0124-4381157, 09810459453, Rs2,500), a tiny eco-lodge about a 2-3 hour drive from Dehra Dun near the village of Thangdar.
61 Don’t go anywhere
No money to travel? No time to travel? Or just can’t be bothered booking the tickets? Opt for a staycation instead. The word supposedly arose from Canadian comedian Brent Butt, whose character on a television show took a vacation across the street from his home, rather than to an exotic location. The idea is simple enough: Rather than packing your bags and heading out into the great wide world, simply enjoy your home and your city from the perspective of a visitor. Don’t worry about finishing all the long-put off projects around the house, and don’t let your co-workers think you can pop back into work, in case of emergency. Just relax and enjoy the secrets of your city and your home, as if you were on vacation there for the very first time. Plus, it’ll help your work ethic: A 2005 study led by the US-based Families and Work Institute found that employees who did not take vacations are more likely to make mistakes at work and to be angry with their employers for expecting them to do so much. And they are far more likely to fall into depression .
62 Just start driving
“There are endless miles ahead of you and no one to bug you. It’s like one of the best kind of holiday ever. It’s just you and the road and yourself. I clear my head and get back to reality.”
V ir Nakai, 28, graphic designer, Mumbai
Three routes Nakai recommends are: the road from Chennai to Puducherry along the sea; the road from Bangalore to Ooty through the forests; and the lake circuit around Leh.