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What Happiness Looks Like Around the World

By Billie Cohen

07.31.19

From the September/October 2019 issue

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Author Helen Russell's book explores happiness in different cultures, including Russia, Costa Rica, and Canada.

Photo by Elena Chernyshova/Panos Pictures

Author Helen Russell's book explores happiness in different cultures, including Russia, Costa Rica, and Canada.

Joy is different in every culture around the globe. Here’s how your passport can be a tool for tapping into that contentment.

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Joie de vivre in Canada

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In her new book The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy, U.K.-born, Denmark-based author Helen Russell takes us on a round-the-world trip—not to the usual tourist attractions but through distinct concepts of happiness that have evolved in 30 countries. Each chapter in the book is devoted to a different country and its concepts of happiness (sobremesa and tapeo in Spain, tarab in Syria, tūrangawaewae and haka in New Zealand), which Russell illustrates via locals’ personal anecdotes. At the conclusion of each section, she pinpoints practical tips for adopting that nation’s unique happiness hacks.

Here, Russell walks us through five of the book’s lesser-known—and often misunderstood—happiness ideologies, with advice for channeling them on your next trip.


What it is
The French may have coined the phrase, which means “joy of living,” but Canadians are better at finding joy in everything. It doesn’t matter how much snow is on the ground, how far they have to drive, or how packed their jazz festivals get. Their particular brand of joie de vivre says, we’re open to anything, anyone, and any weather—we’ll try it all, and we’ll make it good.

How to find it
Canadians’ joie de vivre is a 360-degree celebration of life. To tap into it, start in Montreal, aka the City of Festivals, by grabbing a beer and studying the Québécois approach to celebrations: Here, events aren’t cozy, small, or limited in scope; they sprawl across the city, and locals fill the streets for every imaginable reason—jazz, heavy metal, grand prix, Pride, poutine. Beyond the big cities and famous parks, travelers can also seek joie by exploring Canada’s expansive landscapes and lesser-traveled destinations such as the new Remai Modern art museum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, or the food scene in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Or practice openness to different cultures by visiting the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or by browsing the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada for experiences offered by indigenous-owned and -controlled companies across the country. Finally, emulate our neighbors’ openness to embracing the outdoors in all seasons and for all activities—hiking, kayaking, skiing . . . even sex? Russell laughs and explains: “I couldn’t find any statistics on it, but every Canadian I talked to [about where to find joie de vivre] was like ‘ice hockey and, oh yeah, canoe sex.’ ”

Pura vida in Costa Rica

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What it is

Pura vida, or pure life, is not just a tourism marketing slogan. It’s an embodiment of the concrete steps Costa Ricans have taken to prioritize what’s important to them. In Costa Rica, the government funds education, health care, and conservation instead of a military, and family and friends come first. According to Russell, they even call Sunday “Grandma Day.”

How to find it
Pura vida is accessible to visitors because socializing is such an important part of the culture. “When a Costa Rican meets you for the first time, they’ll be friendly,” Russell says. “The second time you meet, they’re hugging you, and the third time you’re friends for life.” Beaches, many of which are protected by the country’s environmental efforts, are ideal spots to find new friends. “If you go surfing, you are bound to start a conversation with like-minded people,” she says. “[From there] you’ve got a pretty decent chance of being invited to meet someone’s grandmother.” Bars offer similarly social atmospheres, so Russell recommends grabbing some chifrijo (a classic Costa Rican bar snack of rice, beans, and crispy pork) and making conversation. “To come to grips with the culture here, you have to get in an open-hearted state,” Russell urges. “Don’t lock yourself up in a tour bus.”

Young Italian men find their dolce far niente by jumping from the Scala dei Turchi cliff on the Realmonte coast in southern Sicily.

Dolce far niente in Italy

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What it is
“Dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing, is about savoring the moment,” Russell explains. “Rather than fretting about big issues, Italians laugh at the chaos of the world and say, ‘Who cares?’ They let it wash over them and focus instead on creating moments of bliss that are within their control.”

How to find it
Though the phrase for happy langour is not commonly used by Italians, the attitude is widespread: It’s a way of setting aside the bad in order to focus on the good. It means eating decadently, going for 5 o’clock drinks religiously, and not letting work take over your life. The point is to not take anything too seriously and to savor doing nothing of importance. Russell’s suggestions: Linger over coffee and a cornetto in Rome’s Centro Storico; eat a second helping of fettuccine with artichokes and pecorino at Flavio al Velavevodetto (Russell’s favorite restaurant in the capital); and then relax into the abbiocco, that post-meal drowsiness. As Russell points out, “The sweetness of doing nothing is that it’s passive. There’s no extra mile of trying to achieve [happiness]. You’re just letting life happen and enjoying that, and it feels quite revolutionary.”

Russell says,

Wabi sabi in Japan

What it is
Wabi translates to “simplicity” and sabi means “the beauty of age and wear.” Together, they convey the idea that happiness is achieved by accepting—and celebrating—imperfection and transience. The idea is epitomized by kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The lacquer doesn’t hide the cracks, it calls attention to them, because the scars are what make something beautiful and valuable. Observing the changes of the natural world—growth as well as decay—is another way to tune into wabi sabi.

How to find it
“Wabi sabi is a tool to reset ourselves,” Russell explains. We can’t change that we are busy and stressed, but we can take time to recharge in nature and then return to the fray. In fact, forest bathing is such a respected activity in Japan, there’s an online database of prime forest therapy spots. Bathing in an onsen is another way locals unwind. In the Shirahama hot spring resort area in Wakayama Prefecture, travelers can muse on time and nature at the centuries-old Saki-no-Yu open-air baths, set among the rocks overlooking the Pacific. Even in the swirl of the capital, travelers can catch their breath: Russell recommends the Institute for Nature Study, a park where creeks wind though tree-covered vales. “Tokyo can feel overwhelming, so knowing you can be in nature in this way is really lovely,” she says. Many companies offer kintsugi workshops open to travelers.

Azart in Russia

What it is

Russia is a tough, cold place, so Russians grab at happiness with both hands,” Russell says. And that’s what azart (or “ardor”) is: a burning urge to lunge at everything life throws your way, to take chances, no matter the consequences. “There’s also a hint of suffering involved,” she adds, “the idea that you will suffer for your pleasure.”

How to find it
“[In Russia] there’s this idea that you’re seeking heat all the time,” Russell says. That desire, and the willingness to suffer, may explain why Russian bathhouse culture is not only about sweating profusely but also about smacking yourself with birch twigs and running outside afterward to cover yourself in snow. Yamskiye Bani in St. Petersburg, said to have been frequented by Dostoyevsky and Lenin, is a good place to for travelers to start. Russians also chase heat in conversation: They skip the small talk and immediately dive deep. In their homes they call this posidelki, or “kitchen talks.” Vodka can help facilitate the kind of no-B.S. conversations Russians seek and excel at. As travelers are not likely to be spontaneously invited into a stranger’s kitchen (this isn’t Costa Rica), they can shoot for razgovory v poezde, or “train talks.” And not on just any train—the Trans-Siberian Railway, where everyone is crammed together on a multiday journey across the sprawling route, sharing food, sharing space, and swapping stories. It’s a surefire way to experience the distinctly Russian combo of excitement, risk-taking, and suffering that leads to happiness. “It’s hard to explain,” Russell says. “It’s not a comfy, cozy kind of feeling. [It’s] more like you feel really alive.”

>>Next: Norway Is One of the World’s Happiest Countries. Is Friluftsliv the Secret?

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