How Kiwis compares to the world’s happiest countries
Kiwis are happy because they don’t place too much emphasis on work, spend lots of time outside and aren’t overly concerned about “personal achievement” or status.
That’s the conclusion of Alissa and Tjerk, a Dutch couple on a part-professional, part-personal quest to visit 25 of the happiest countries in the world. They have selected the countries using multiple criteria: world happiness rankings, scientific research, word of mouth and their own “gut feelings”.
New Zealand, they note, comes in at number eight on the World Happiness Index and has been voted the third most beautiful country on earth and the greatest country of 2017.
“Happiness in New Zealand is leading a laid-back lifestyle in a modest way,” Alissa says. “We feel that Kiwis have a more genuine, laid-back approach than many Aussies we talked to. [Kiwis] don’t take things too seriously, figure new things out along the way and don’t seem to be bothered easily. They seem to care less about status; they assure us that working to live is more important than living to work.”
It helps, they contend, that Kiwis live in a “secluded paradise” and are “crazy about nature”, meaning they’re more likely to go for an endorphin-boosting hike, mountain bike ride or swim than blob out in front of Netflix.
The couple, who met while working at KPMG in Amsterdam, touched down in New Zealand in December after visiting Switzerland, Iceland, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Kenya, South Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia. They have since visited Sri Lanka and plan to head to Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and the US.
Their aim, Alissa explains, is to “to gather personal stories behind the numbers and gather unique definitions of happiness”.
After leaving KPMG two-and-a-half years ago, Alissa trained in positive psychology and now has her own consultancy in Amsterdam. She helps individuals to set and achieve their goals and small businesses to establish positive work cultures and environments. Tjerk has a background in HR.
The pair had always planned to travel the world together but wanted to do so with purpose.
“We were trying to find out what we are looking for,” Alissa says. “What are we in quest of? In Europe, so many people, especially the younger generation, find happiness a continual challenge. It just worries me. I want to inspire them to look for their own interpretation.”
In New Zealand, the couple headed straight to the South Island, where they’d been told the happiest people in the country reside. It took them a while though to find any true blue New Zealanders.
“After a few days, we met a bunch of lovely and inspiring people, but not any true Kiwis. So we adjusted our approach and started our conversation with the question “Are you a Kiwi?” After a few more shots we got lucky. Yet we’ve come to the conclusion that… immigrants also contribute to and define happiness in New Zealand. The integration of many overseas people might be a result of the relaxed and friendly culture or vice versa. We don’t really care, we just love it!”
That work-life balance in New Zealand is weighted toward life is key to Kiwis’ happiness, they say. As is our lack of focus on “status or power”.
“[Kiwis] are not in a continuous comparison battle and aren’t overly focused on personal achievements.”
Mikael, a Canadian now living in New Zealand, proved a living embodiment of this theory when he told them “People still have enough time to do the things they like – be outdoors, enjoy and be proud of whatever it is they’re doing. You don’t need to be a banker or consultant to be considered successful.”
However, the couple found that that living in “paradise” has a dark side.
New Zealand’s remoteness makes the cost of living and travelling overseas high, which they see as “the biggest happiness challengers” to Kiwis.
And while living in a country with such a low population density means New Zealanders have plenty of space and are “free to be whom they are”, those who don’t actively seek out social interaction – particularly in smaller communities – can feel lonely and isolated.
Alissa and Tjerk wonder whether Kiwis’ generally humble nature makes us come across as less happy than we really are. Or perhaps we don’t realise how good we’ve got it.
“The Kiwis we met are all very friendly and polite, but some seem to speak less easily about their pursuit of happiness. They are modest… No bragging, no finger pointing… Yet the pitfall is that they may not even be aware of everything New Zealand is offering because they have nothing to compare it to. Or they are too shy to frequently talk about it… Luckily they have a bunch of happy immigrants who can provide some insights and do the happiness bragging for them!”
New Zealanders’ understanding of what it means to lead a happy life seems to fall somewhere in between Europeans’ and those in Latin America and South Africa, the couple says.
“In most of the Western countries, there is a hunger for more and better. People are not easily satisfied… Whereas in countries such as South Africa, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, people seem to be automatically living in the moment. They don’t even really know how they do it. It’s just inherent to who they are.”
Every Nica they encountered gave them the same piece of advice, they say: “Don’t think too much. You don’t want to hurt your head”.
Despite a history of political and civil unrest that made it one of the least visited countries in Central America for a long time, Nicaragua came in at number seven on the Happy Planet Index 2017 list of the happiest countries in the world, moving up more places than any other nation.
Travelling from the colourful Spanish colonial city of Granada to the surf mecca of Costa Dulce via the twin volcanic peaks of Isla de Ometepe, Alissa and Tjerk found the locals to be “a strong and resilient people who place great value on family and family life”. And food.
While about a third of the population lives in poverty and many others don’t have a lot, Alissa says people tend to focus on – and be grateful for – what they do have.
As Dennis, a taxi driver in the south of the country told them, “you don’t need to do anything else but live day by day. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. If I want to have a nice dinner today, I will. Tomorrow, I will start again.”
While Nordic and Western European countries with famously high standards of living often rate highly in world happiness rankings, Alissa has found that their inhabitants tend to be only “moderately content”.
From afar, the Swiss, for example, appear to have highly covetable lifestyles. For the most part, they have well-paid jobs, live in safe communities, have access to excellent social services and escape to chocolate-box-perfect villages and pristine alpine resorts at weekends.
Strolling the clean, serene streets of Lucerne though, where the tranquility seemed to trickle down from the mountains, Alissa wondered if it was all too good to be true – if it was perhaps a nation of Stepford-esque husbands and wives, striving to maintain an image of perfection.
A local banker, Joel, seemed to confirm this, telling them people are constantly trying to outdo each other.
“In Switzerland, many people dress up in suits with big fancy watches trying to impress the rest. A few years ago, I was always looking for something new, something different and constantly trying to impress others,” he said.
Alex, whom they met in a trendy concept store in West Zurich, told them “people feel connected to an extremely proud of their country and want everything to stay perfect”. However, he acknowledged that they do need a release at times, saying this is why the Frau Gerolds Garten – a shabby chic dining and entertainment precinct surrounded by old factory buildings and noisy trains – has become so popular.
“It’s not Swiss. It’s loud, dirty and full of crazy people. It’s a truly inspiring and amazing place.”
As in many Western countries, the focus for many in Switzerland is on achieving career goals and financial prosperity in the name of building a secure future.
“Happiness seems to be more about a sense of contentment in Europe and making sure nothing bad happens. People are looking for more basic comforts like safety and security. In Nicaragua, on the other hand, there’s more focus on reaching higher levels of happiness: personal, communal, spiritual.”
Despite the soaring popularity of mindfulness apps, yoga and self-help books in the West, Alissa said many of us still struggle to live, and find contentment, in the present. We are constantly wanting and striving for more.
Wherever they have wandered, however, the couple have found that – outside of their basic needs – people are essentially looking for the same things: quality time with family and friends, good health and a sense of security.
Almost everyone, they say, also wants to feel part of something greater than themselves, whether that be their local community or the world at large.