Islands loom large in our collective daydreams. Close your eyes and you can likely conjure up imagery of a perfect island idyll: A sweep of sugary sand fringed by palms, with a lazily swinging hammock; while all around, as far as the eye can see, lies the glittering ocean. Even just uttering the word “island” can bring a smile to our faces.
But what is it, exactly, that makes such islands so universally loved? Why, when we imagine our happy place, do so many of us picture islands?
It turns out that islands have a lot in common, wherever they might be—from gorgeous scenery to the people who live there. Islands and island life may have developed organically over millennia, but their commonalities almost make it seem like they were engineered to create happiness.
In a way, that’s true. Since 2012, The World Happiness Report, a landmark study conducted by a division of the United Nations, has ranked the self-assessed happiness of residents in more than 150 countries around the world. This year’s study results not only found that 10 of the globe’s 60 happiest countries are island nations; it also revealed that some of the top characteristics of happy countries are endemic to island life.
The Friendliness Factor One of the main commonalities among happy countries, the U.N. study discovered, is a strong, welcoming sense of community—among residents, but also, critically, between a country’s native and migrant populations.
It makes sense that islands—geographically set apart, with maritime locales that draw both visitors and settlers from far-flung places—encourage this sort of rapport. New Zealand, for instance, which ranks high on the UN’s happiness index, has a culture that has long incorporated Polynesian, European, and, increasingly, Asian populations. Malta, another happy island nation, has a similarly rich history, blending Mediterranean and Arab traditions—one that’s been made richer still by the arrival of tourists from countries like North America and Australia.
In Aruba, meanwhile, visitors encounter a fusion of cultural influences. There are nearly 100 different nationalities that make up this island nation, all living harmoniously in what they call the “Aruban way.” This blend is reflected in their festivals, music, and cuisine, as well as their languages—some Arubans speak as many as five of them, including English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and a unique dialect called Papiamento.
Successfully blending such a variety of cultures on such a tiny paradise requires adapting to new faces and new ideas—and it’s partly why an exceptionally high percentage of Arubans consider themselves to be happy. In fact, in The Happiness Index Study, a full 78 percent of Arubans rated themselves as happy, due to an overall sense of neighborliness and optimism—not just toward one another, but toward travelers visiting the island
That sense of togetherness plays a large part in what we feel when we visit islands. The community spirit helps locals feel happy with their own lives, and that carries over into how they welcome and embrace travelers. In other words, the warmth that you feel is real.
Soothing Seaside Scenery Of course, people are only part of what make islands so magical—there’s also the endlessly appealing, wonderfully calming natural beauty distinctive to places surrounded by water. In fact, our emotional and psychological responses to seaside scenery, known as “The Blue Effect,” have also been researched. And, as a recent study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health documents, exposure to beaches and seascapes measurably lowers our stress and boosts our sense of well-being.
Such studies go a long way toward explaining the allure of certain, only-on-an-island experiences. Staying in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora, for example, allows you to be lulled to sleep—and greeted each morning—by the sights and sounds of the South Pacific. Also relaxing: Soaking in one of Iceland’s famous geothermal pools, like its famous Blue Lagoon. Or serenely paddling off Aruba’s southern Caribbean coast in a clear kayak, as dazzling swarms of tropical fish, corals, and occasional sea turtles drift beneath your transparent craft.
The Unique Mix Whether you’re visiting the temples of Bali, the lemurs of Madagascar, or the beaches of Aruba, it’s the combination of these two essential factors—genuinely happy people and relaxing scenery, existing in close proximity—that make islands so appealing. We may have known this intrinsically, but the data backs up why island escapes are the stuff of fantasies.
So, the next time you find yourself daydreaming about an island escape, why not start planning one? After all, as you can tell anyone who asks, it’s been definitively proven: Islands really do make us happier.