A Japanese girl laughs beneath the cherry blossoms.

A Cheerful Chase: Seek Happiness in Faraway Lands

7 March 2017
Read Time: 6.5 mins

Surely the best of travel isn’t just about ticking off the Taj Mahal or the Mona Lisa (the hectic charms of trying to see and do it all will eventually pall) but the chance it gives us to exchange ideas, open our minds and find new ways of considering the world. Simpler pursuits – discovering what brings you joy – may be more rewarding in the long run, but how exactly do we seek out happiness along the road?

At least some of the time, we have an intuitive grasp of what gives lasting pleasure. Beautiful places and buildings, for example; mountaintop views in the Alps and sunsets in the Greek Islands; places with buildings so cheerfully coloured – like South Beach in Miami or Guanajuato in Mexico – that they put us in a good mood. Some places are just happy places – the beaches and bulas of Fiji; forests and rivers overflowing with enchantment, and flower-filled destinations, such as Japan in cherry blossom season, are guaranteed to make us smile.

Colourful buildings in Guanajuato, Mexico. The colourful face of Guanajuato in Mexico. Image: Getty

On another level entirely, however, what might make us happy is just to slow down, visit smaller places, feel connected to local people and soak up experiences rather than sights. You can be happy whiling away the afternoon in a cafe instead of tramping through a museum, or discovering a pleasant neighbourhood far from the madding crowd.

Perhaps you can seek out joy in countries that officially recognise that happiness is key. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has long had a Gross National Happiness Index, while the United Arab Emirates recently appointed a Minister of State for Happiness. Both Venezuela and Ecuador have similar government posts.

Even the United Nations is in on the act, promoting the International Day of Happiness each March 20, bringing together folk from 160 countries hoping for new policies that seek to increase wellbeing and happiness. Or you might want to head to the countries that dominate the 2016 rankings of happiest nations, including Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand.

While locals might have every reason  to be happy because of the country they live in and how they go about their days, the question is whether such happiness can rub off on mere visitors to these chirpy countries. Surely the answer is yes, and here’s how we might go about it.   

Cosy up to a Dane

Improbable as it might seem, Denmark – land of glum philosophers and grim winters – lays claim to having the world’s happiest people, according to The World Happiness Report. It’s often explained by personal freedoms, good education and health systems, and a fair society – or it might be because fairytales do come true here, at least for Princess Mary.

Pastries fill a bakery window in Denmark. Happiness is ... a Danish, or three. Image: Getty

But Danes say it’s all down to hygge, a cosy atmosphere created by the likes of family and friends, long conversations, candlelit suppers and warm cinnamon buns. That’s good news for visitors, who can have a helping of hygge by relaxing in Copenhagen’s trendy New Nordic restaurants, plundering bakeries or lying in a park with a good book and a picnic. Bring some hygge home in the form of chic Danish homewares: sometimes happiness is simply being surrounded by nice things.

Seek Enlightenment

India’s spirituality beckons. Religious sites have always been a highlight of this fabulous country, from the tumult of pilgrim city Varanasi to the bell-clanging Buddhist temples of Sikkim and erotic tantric sculptures of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. Happiness, however, might be found by looking beyond these spectacles to philosophies that promise inner peace, an expanded mind and an alternative view of creation.

Hindus gather on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. The colourful pilgrim city of Varanasi. Image: Getty

Novices can ease their way in with gentle yoga and introductory meditation courses at the ashrams of Rishikesh, a Ganges pilgrim town in the Himalayan foothills. Those up for a challenge can tackle two-week retreats without television or alcohol – surely enough in itself to result in clarity of thought. If all else fails, the fresh mountain air and evening views over the Ganges, as temple lights twinkle and pilgrims chant, will be enough to fill your soul.  

Share the Love Around

If happiness doesn’t come from within, or by finding solitude, maybe it’s found in groups of people. It might, however, come from ‘Gross National Happiness’, a concept pioneered by the little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the early 1970s.

A Buddhist monastery clings to a hillside in Bhutan. Buddhist monasteries abound in Bhutan. Image: Getty

The index claims to measure a nation’s collective happiness by building an economy in which spiritual, social and environmental values are as important as economic ones. Bhutan remains the only country to use ‘Gross National Happiness’ as its main measure of development, so why not head to Bhutan and see it in action?

Certainly you’ll appreciate Bhutan’s colourful village and monastery festivals, mountain hikes, fun-loving people and the absence of mass tourism. It mightn’t be nirvana, but it’s almost Shangri-La, the fictional land sought by explorers of the Himalayas.

So go on, get out there. The world is a marvellous place, and happiness might be just down the road and over the hill.

Find Music to Your Ears

Seeing the sights isn’t the only reason to travel, and enjoyment is found by engaging all the senses. Don’t just look at the world, but seek the sounds of happiness too.

After all, music has proven therapeutic effects on our wellness and stress levels, and is even used in hospitals to combat depression and insomnia. If you’re keen to tune in as you travel, there’s perhaps no better destination than the United States of America.

A busker entertains the crowds in downtown New Orleans. Buskers brighten the streets of New Orleans with jazz and blues. Image: Getty

Check out the jazz bars and buskers of New Orleans, the soul and rock sounds of steamy Memphis, and the blues festival in Chicago. Hip-hop through New York’s Harlem, toe-tap to country music in Nashville and get your grunge on in Seattle, which produced the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And if you’re a fan of Celine Dion or Britney Spears, we’ll forgive you – and see you in Las Vegas.

Indulge Your Wild Side

There’s something magical about wildlife encounters that puts a big smile on our dial, whether spotting elusive wild pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains, swimming with whale sharks in Tonga or meeting orangutans at a rehabilitation centre in Indonesia. Actually, our own native quokkas might have the power to make us the happiest.

A quokka. Western Australia's cute quokkas are sure to put a smile on your dial. Image: Getty

Social media has ‘discovered’ these amiable creatures, who seemingly pose for photos with big grins. You can see the endangered marsupials on Rottnest Island off the West Australian coast, where they occasionally even wander into cafes. Just don’t get too close – the quokkas have sharp claws. 

Go Troppo

Tropical islands can make us dream of escape and a more prolonged happiness. You could just walk out of the office, get marooned on a beach and never come back, spending your life eating coconuts and admiring the sunsets.

A smiling Fijian holds out his arms in front of the beach. Big smiles and warm welcomes await in Fiji. Image: Getty

Even for a short holiday you should head to Fiji, where a WIN/Gallup poll rated people happier overall of those in 65 surveyed countries. More than 90 per cent of the Fijians asked claimed to be happy or very happy, surely corroborated by the cheery bula chorus that greets you from the moment you arrive. Happiness is easy here, with smiles produced by the colour of the sea and emerald hills, the balmy climate and fruity food, guitars being strummed, dancing and feasting, and the languid pace of Fiji time.

* Featured: A young girl laughs beneath Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in Travel ideas – WOW List 2017.

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Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.