The Atlas of Happiness

The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy


By Helen Russell

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A fun, illustrated guide that takes us around the world, discovering the secrets to happiness. Author Helen Russell (The Year of Living Danishly) uncovers the fascinating ways that different nations search for happiness in their lives, and what they can teach us about our own quest for meaning.
This charming and diverse assortment of advice, history, and philosophies includes:
  • Sobremesa from Spain
  • Turangawaewae from New Zealand
  • Azart from Russia
  • Tarab from Syria
  • joie de vivre from Canada
  • and many more.



Welcome. Really. Come on in. It can be tough out there. It’s easy to watch rolling news and get the idea that the world is getting more miserable by the minute. That we’re all becoming more isolationist and that these are bleak times indeed. But news is about the “stuff” that happens, not the “stuff” that doesn’t happen. It’s not “news” that life expectancy has never been higher, nor that leisure time has never been more bountiful, wherever you are.

No front pages will be dedicated to the fact that thanks to modern technologies, the amount of time spent doing housework has fallen from sixty hours a week to just eleven hours (all hail the spin cycle…). According to Millennium Development Goals data and the most recent World Bank report, in the past twenty-five years, world hunger has declined by 40 percent, child mortality has halved and extreme poverty has fallen by two thirds—three statistics that are unlikely to be trending on Twitter any time soon.

When things are ticking along well, there’s very little to report. Negativity bias means that, as human beings, we experience “bad” events more intensely than we do the “good”—and we also remember them more. But that doesn’t mean that “bad” is all there is. We have to work to consciously remember the “good” and remain hopeful—or we can’t make things better.

Optimism isn’t frivolous: it’s necessary. If we feel hopeless all the time, if we’re always in crisis, the natural response is to give up and stop trying altogether. But we can’t let snark win. Problems are there to be solved. Challenges, to be met. We can be aware of the bad while also being mindful of how we can make it better. There are people all around the world finding happiness every day, both in countries that top the global happiness surveys and in those that don’t. By learning about them we can find more ways to be happy ourselves and help each other. Empathy is essential, and learning about what matters to people on the other side of the world helps us all. Understanding how different nations view happiness can impact on how we interact with one another going forward.

This book was inspired by the fascinating testimonies I’ve been privy to since I started researching happiness in 2013 for my first book, The Year of Living Danishly. Since then, I’ve been approached in some of the most bizarre settings (public toilets; forests; sand dunes…) by people from all over the world who want to share their own country’s unique happiness concepts. As an international living overseas, I’m also privileged to have a delightfully diverse social circle, and confidantes from every continent have offered expertise and enlightenment. The result is a catalog of cultural customs to give a horizontal perspective on happiness and what it means to live a good life around the world. The regions are in alphabetical order, to offer an unexpected and unusual tour through the different approaches adopted globally. This isn’t a compendium of the world’s happiest countries; instead it’s a look at some of the concepts that are making people happier in different places. Because if we look exclusively at countries that are already coming top of the happiness polls, we miss out on a wealth of ideas and knowledge from cultures we may be less familiar with.

Nowhere is perfect. Every country has faults. These pages unashamedly celebrate the best parts of a country’s culture as well as national characteristics at their finest—because that’s what we should all be aiming for. The list of concepts won’t be exhaustive and I’m open to learning more—if there’s a happiness hack that I’ve missed, keep me posted. Little words can have a big impact and ostensibly simple ideas can change the way we look at the world. No one thought that hygge would catch on. Now it’s a global phenomenon. You decide which of the concepts within these pages will be next.

Some of the themes that sprung out of my research were universal—such as time with family and friends, taking the pressure off at work, or engaging with nature—while others, like pants-drinking in Finland or appreciating aging in Japan, were intriguingly unique. But one thing’s for sure: we can all get happier, and there are endless possibilities for ways to try.

So here are 33 reasons to be cheerful: inspirations to keep you hopeful and to offer succour to anyone at the end of their tether. Some of the concepts will contradict others—just as the cultures of some countries appear the antithesis to those of their neighbors. That’s OK: we’re all different. Take what works for you. Read. Refuel. And go get ′em.


“Fair go, a phrase used to mean that everyone and everything is deserving of a reasonable chance. First recorded in the Brisbane Courier in 1891 when striking sheep shearers were arrested without having their warrants read to them first and demanded of their manager, “Do you call this a fair go?” The strike was one of the earliest and most important in the country’s history, spurring the birth of the Australian Labor Party and the perception of Australia as an egalitarian society, where fairness, good sportsmanship, and a positive outlook are prized.

The opening piano chords still trigger in me a Pavlovian response, transporting me to the endless summers of my youth and the beginnings of my education in beach life, surfing, and the spirit of “fair go.” As a child growing up in 1980s British suburbia, the first two were of little use, but the third gave me a grounding in what I like to think are my liberal leanings today. I was six years old and Neighbors was airing for the first time. The Australian soap opera’s cheery G and C major intro (a lot like The Carpenters’ “Close to You”) marked the start of a fifteen-year daily pilgrimage to Ramsey Street. When Home and Away reached the UK in 1989, I watched that, too. Which means that between the impressionable ages of six and twenty-one (I was at university, what else was I going to do?) I had 3,510 hours of “tutorials” on “no worries” Australian sunshine culture and the “fair go” philosophy.

This was time well spent, according to my friend Sheridan from Brisbane. Because friendliness, sunshine and the spirit of “fair go” are what makes Australians tick—so as an amateur anthropologist and happiness researcher, I was simply starting early.

“‘Fair go’ is really important for happiness in Australia and it means equality of opportunity and giving everyone a fair shot,” says Sheridan. Gen, a friend from Adelaide, agrees: “It means that no matter where you’re from or who you are, if you can do the job, there should be no reason why you can’t—and this extends to saying you’ll give something a ‘fair crack,’ like you’ll give it your best try.” This, in turn, makes you happy—because there’s a feeling that everything is achievable, everyone’s equal, and you’re all in it together.

Australia regularly ranks among the top ten happiest countries worldwide and Aussies have always been known as an upbeat, friendly bunch. They learn from an early age to get along, “play the game” and “participate” above all else. “Teachers are fixated on this,” says Ben, from Melbourne, and everyone is encouraged to take part.” I remember at school there were as many left-handed pairs of scissors as there were right-handed ones in the classroom. I always got stuck with the green-handled left-handed ones…”

But the Australian ideal of giving it a “fair go” is most evident when it comes to the country’s national obsession: sport. Ben has fond memories of being hauled out of a soccer match one day for having his arms folded. “I told my coach, ‘I thought I was doing OK!’ but he told me, ‘No: you were just standing there, you weren’t giving it a fair go!’ You have to try—that’s the thing,” says Ben. This is more important than demonstrating any natural aptitude and all Australian schoolchildren grow up playing netball or soccer in winter and cricket in summer.

“Cricket is the closest thing we have to a religion in Australia,” says Ben, which is why the national team’s 2018 ball-tampering scandal knocked the knees out from under many Aussies. The International Cricket Council gave the Australian team a one-game suspension but Cricket Australia—the national association—decided to observe a one-year suspension. “We punished ourselves far more harshly than the rest of the world did,” says Ben (Ben works in marketing, but still, when it comes to the Australian cricket team, it’s “we”). I remark that the offense of sandpapering a ball seems so mild in these days of doping scandals and dubious urine samples, but Ben assures me it was A Big Deal. “Cheating is completely against the Australian values of playing fair—where everything has to be just and equal,” he says, “so yes, there was crying on national TV about what they’d done. Because they broke the ‘fair go’ code.”

Sports are so revered in Australia that there’s a public holiday before the Australian Soccer League Grand Final in Victoria and everyone gets the day off for the Melbourne Cup. “We also love rugby (League & Union), swimming, tennis…” says Liz, my old flatmate, who comes from Perth, “and you don’t need to be good at sport personally to worship it.” We all know that taking part in sports can make us happier and healthier by releasing endorphins—but being a sports fan has been proven to make us happier, too. Fandom gives us a sense of community and this “belonging” boosts our well-being. Sports psychology researchers from Murray State University in the US found that sports fans reported higher levels of general happiness, lower levels of loneliness, and a markedly better social life, as well as a common language with which to communicate. Something Australians seem to have cottoned on to years ago. Ben tells me how sporting clubs in Australia take new migrants to soccer games so that they can get to know the culture and have something to talk to their new colleagues or classmates about. “It’s that important,” he stresses. But interestingly, there’s not the same level of tribalism or exclusivity involved in supporting a sports team in Australia as you might find in other countries. “We’re all about the underdog,” says Sheridan: “so we’ll always back them, because otherwise that’s not fair and it could be you one day. As long as the other team are having a fair crack at it, they deserve a ‘fair go.’ It’s like our national motto.”

Of course, the reality doesn’t always measure up to the rhetoric and some have demonstrably not had a “fair go” historically—like Australia’s Aboriginal people, who have been systematically discriminated against in practically every way imaginable since the British colonization of Australia began in 1788. As Sheridan says: “Australia definitely has blinkers about Indigenous Australians.” January 26th is still marked as “Australia Day” in “honor” of the First Fleet’s landing, although many Australians are now in favor of renaming it “Invasion Day.” Australia hasn’t always been great on LGBTI rights, either, despite Sydney’s reputation as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities. But in 2017 Australians voted in huge numbers for marriage equality to give a “fair go”—finally—for love. And in March 2018, the Northern Territory was the last jurisdiction to pass an adoption equality law to allow same-sex adoption.

Today, the right to a “fair go” has been found to be Australians’ highest rated value in a survey published in Victoria’s state newspaper, The Age. A consequence of this is that Australian society aspires to be stridently anti-hierarchical. No one is better than anyone else, so why should they be treated differently? There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in every Australian and a hallmark of Aussie comedy is the pricking of pomposity (Kath & Kim and Utopia are two of my favorite TV exports. I’ve finally moved on from Neighbors…). This attitude has led to a riotously raw turn of phrase that distinguishes Australian English from the language used by their more repressed cousins on the other side of the world *waves*. There’s nothing guaranteed to cheer up a morning more than remembering the delightfully surreal Australian adage: “He’s got a few roos loose in the top paddock…”—meaning that the kangaroos in someone’s brain have gone AWOL and they are therefore lacking in intellect. Or the wonderfully earthy: “We’re not here to fuck spiders…” used to imply: “We’re not here to mess around and should probably get on with the task at hand.” Which, we can all agree, isn’t half so much fun to say out loud.

“I think we’re pretty good at laughing at ourselves,” says Sheridan, “and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have a positive outlook on the whole but we’re laid-back about it.” Because: “no worries.” This is an expression used everywhere now—from the US to the UK, New Zealand, South Africa and even Canada—but “no worries’ epitomises Aussie culture, summing up a friendly gregariousness, a robust jocularity and a casual optimism. “‘No worries’ is wired into the Australian psyche,” says Ben, “it’s a way of thinking that suggests, no matter how bad things are, ‘she’ll be right’—another of our phrases—in the end. There’s a lot of hope. And confidence.” Despite, I point out, the fact that Australians have plenty of things to worry about in reality—from sharks to jellyfish, snakes, crocodiles, “scorpion fish” (a thing, apparently) and deadly spiders (fucked or otherwise…). You’re not worried about any of these? I ask, tentatively. Ben shrugs. “I mean, we’re all going to die anyway…” is his response. “But it’s like ‘no worries’ is a creative brief that allows me to live and love fearlessly, even if it doesn’t always work out.”

As a chronic worrier, the idea of a “no worries” approach to life appeals. Living by this mantra in a country that doesn’t have deadly creatures hiding under every rock should be a breeze. But how to stay positive on those days when everything just seems too hard? “The sunshine helps,” says Sheridan. “It keeps you level, mood-wise, and you’ve got these bright blue skies.” Cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—the clinical condition believed to be caused by decreased light exposure in winter—are extremely rare in Australia where sunshine reigns. Mostly. “But even when we get tropical storms,” Sheridan reflects, “the heavy rain isn’t cold.” I remember getting caught in a thunderstorm in Sydney years ago that just felt like a pleasantly warm power shower. That’s right: even the rain’s agreeable in Australia. Sheridan consoles me in my life-envy slightly by telling me that the perennially sunny forecast can throw up its own difficulties: “Life’s a beach in Australia—or at least, you’re there a lot of the time. And it’s 97 or 100 degrees in Queensland. And I have freckled white skin. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in board shorts, a full rash vest, and a hat. Sometimes I carried an umbrella for shade, too. I looked like an 18th-century lady crossed with Bart Simpson…”

I sympathize, I tell her: my skin doesn’t like the sun either. But my soul really does. Ben gets this: “There’s nothing like that feeling of the sun hitting your face—and it suddenly feels like everything’s going to be OK.” The good weather isn’t taken for granted in Australia, with government grants offered to people with debilitating illnesses to spend time in the north of the country, where it’s even warmer. “Because there’s still a sense that the sun is good for you,” says Ben, “that we’re lucky to have it. We call ourselves the ‘lucky country.’”

“Lucky” is the word. Australians have a good welfare system with free healthcare and education up to university, after which there are zero-interest student loans to cover fees and living expenses. Many finish work at 5 p.m. and 85 percent of Australians live within 31 miles of the sea, and can toddle off to one of the country’s 10,000 stunning beaches to surf every day if they want to. There’s space to breathe, with only three Australians per square kilometer countrywide, and most Australians spend a lot of time outdoors.

“The weather makes you want to be outside and you don’t want to do that by yourself, so it makes for a really good social environment,” says Sheridan. And friendship is really important to Australians. Ninety-four percent of Aussies say that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, according to OECD data. “We make strong connections with people in Australia, but it’s quite ‘easy come,’” Sheridan tells me, “so I’d be offended if someone didn’t want to be my friend, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you?!’” This is fascinating, and the antithesis to the British or even Danish approach to friendship whereby you must either have been introduced formally by at least two family members or have been at school with someone for years. That or have met on Twitter. But Ben agrees that his fellow countrymen and women are unusually open to making new mates via face-to-face interaction.

“In Australia, you’ll chat to your barista while they’re making you coffee and they might say ‘Wanna go for a beer?’” And you’ll go? I am near incredulous at such social confidence. “Yes.” And not just because they’re a hot girl and you fancy them? I’ve known Ben a month but this seems a fair punt. “Yes…” he says, before qualifying: “seventy percent of the time, ‘yes.’” But even then, we all tend to have a lot in common in Australia so you know you could always talk to them about sports or coffee or beaches…” Sheridan is similarly unabashed: “We’ll talk to anyone—hairdressers, baristas, store workers—you build up a personal relationship. If there’s a connection, there’s nothing weird about taking that further.” Liz only needs to sit next to someone on a bus and she’ll become their lifelong friend (and they’ll be all the better for it: she’s a good one). Friendship, for Australians, is like “no worries”—approached with generosity but no less sincere for being spread around liberally. It strikes me that this must be a rather lovely way to live—going through life assuming that everyone you meet is just waiting to be your friend. Between a friendly, laid-back attitude, a love of the outdoors, the sun, and a passionate belief in a “fair go” for all, why wouldn’t you be happy? So go forth: be fair, befriend, give everything a try. Remember: we’re not here to fuck spiders.



Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the philosophy that guides the government and people of Bhutan whereby collective happiness and well-being is measured and prioritized ahead of financial gain. Although practiced informally throughout Bhutanese history, the term was coined in 1972 when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck told a journalist from The Financial Times, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” Since then, Bhutan has championed policies that measure “prosperity” via the spiritual, physical, social, and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment.

The air is sharp; the sky is wide and pierced by mountains—so high they disappear into clouds. And yet the tiny Himalayan nation of just 750,000 people, where cows still roam the streets, has been quietly changing the world.

Until 1962 Bhutan had no roads, schools, hospitals or national currency, but then the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, known as “the father of modern Bhutan,” began to update the infrastructure before handing over the reins to his son. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King, stepped into his father’s tshoglham (traditional Bhutanese boots) in his teens and took on the mantle of propelling his country into the modern era—in a particularly Bhutanese way.

Bhutan already had a long tradition of promoting happiness, well-being, and the importance of karma, having adopted Buddhism some time around AD 700. “Compassion and altruism in Bhutan are as old as the mountains,” says Passang, a friend of a friend from Paro, the town with the only international airport in Bhutan. The term ga-kyid is essential to most Bhutanese—from ga for “happiness” and kyid for “peace”—but, as Passang says, “the concept transcends the literal meaning to encompass spiritual, environmental, social, and economic well–being.” Two ancient proverbs give a telling account of the priorities of the Bhutanese, historically: “There is no way to happiness: happiness is the way,” and “Happiness is based on trust and trust is free.” As a result, Bhutan had been chugging along by itself quite nicely, albeit aided by the addition of such novelties as hospitals, schools, and roads by which to get to them.

When King Wangchuck IV came to power in 1972, he wanted to continue his father’s work as a modernizer but wasn’t so keen on some of the consumerist trappings and ensuing troubles that came with them in other countries he observed. He saw the direction the rest of the world was going in and he didn’t like it. But, rather than isolating his kingdom from outside influences, he set out to eschew the relentless pursuit of cold hard cash at the cost of human well-being and promote ga-kyid—as well as finding a balance between the old and the new.

“In naming the GNH, King Wangchuck formalised the ideals and belief system that Bhutanese people had been operating under for years,’ says Tsewang, a contact of mine originally from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan: “This ensured that the advantages of the old way of life were not lost with the encroachment of modern technology.” The country opened up to television and the internet at the end of the 1990s and even welcomed the delights of WrestleMania, Indian soap operas and Kit Kats (very popular), but the traditional ideas also endured. Then in 2005, at the height of his popularity, King Wangchuck IV abdicated to live out his own personal happiness dream in a tree house (apparently), and let his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, have a go. The new king, Wangchuck V, began his reign overseeing the democratization of his country and in 2008 GNH was instituted as the official goal of the government in the Constitution of Bhutan—at the same time as the rest of the world was falling apart.

Amidst growing inequality, environmental Armageddon, and banking crashes in every developed country going, Bhutan’s alternative approach started getting some attention. In 2011, the then secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, urged UN member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and measure happiness and well-being—calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.” The following year, the UN’s secretary-general met with Bhutan’s prime minister Jigme Thinley to talk tactics and form a strategy to encourage the spread of Bhutan’s GNH Index and improve levels of well-being worldwide. Because, here’s the thing: it works.


  • "This attractive, intriguing book-chock-full of colorful illustrations and breezy, informative essays-will be enjoyed by all, young or old."—-BookPage

On Sale
May 7, 2019
Page Count
288 pages
Running Press

Helen Russell

About the Author

Helen Russell is a journalist and the bestselling author of The Year of Living Danishly.

Formerly editor of, she now lives in Denmark and works as a Scandinavia correspondent for the Guardian, as well as writing a column on Denmark for the Telegraph and features for The Times, The Observer, Grazia, The Wall Street Journal, and the Independent.

Learn more about this author