Where Are the Happiest Cities in the World?

holidays car travel adventure

For the first time ever, the 2020 World Happiness Report ranked 186 cities around the world in terms of their level of subjective well-being. By looking at the Gallup World Poll data across more than 160 countries and 99% of the world’s population, we can now tell which city’s residents evaluated their current life the highest. Well, at least how they evaluated their life satisfaction before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

If you would like to determine your life satisfaction, you could also ask yourself the following question: “imagine yourself on a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Zero represents the worst possible life and ten the best possible life you can imagine. Which step would you put yourself on based on your life currently?”

Here are the top 20 cities, based on their inhabitants’ responses to the above question:

  1. Helsinki, Finland = 7.828 average
  2. Aarhus, Denmark = 7.625 average
  3. Wellington, New Zealand = 7.553 average
  4. Zurich, Switzerland = 7.541 average
  5. Copenhagen, Denmark = 7.530 average
  6. Bergen, Norway = 7.527 average
  7. Olso, Norway = 7.464 average
  8. Tel Aviv, Israel = 7.461 average
  9. Stockholm, Sweden = 7.373 average
  10. Brisbane, Australia = 7.337 average
  11. San Jose, Costa Rica = 7.321 average
  12. Reykjavik, Iceland = 7.317 average
  13. Toronto, Canada = 7.298 average
  14. Melbourne, Australia = 7.296 average
  15. Perth, Australia = 7.253 average
  16. Auckland, New Zealand = 7.232 average
  17. Christchurch, New Zealand = 7.191 average
  18. Washington, USA = 7.185 average
  19. Dallas, USA = 7.155 average
  20. Sydney, Australia = 7.133 average
photo of cathedral near buildings and river

Scandinavian cities dominate, with more than half of the top ten cities worldwide. Australia’s happiest city is Brisbane, but three other Australian cities make the top 20, with Melbourne beating Sydney (yes!). NZ also fares pretty well, with Wellington the happiest city outside of Finland and Denmark, and Auckland and Christchurch in the top 20 too. The happiest city in the US is Washington D.C. surprisingly at #18, with Dallas just behind it in 19th.

Which Cities Are Improving their Happiness Levels the Most?

Here are the top ten cities with the biggest improvement in life satisfaction from 2005 to 2018:

  1. Abidjan, Ivory Coast = 0.981 average improvement in subjective well-being
  2. Dushanbe, Tajikstan = 0.950 average improvement
  3. Vilnius, Lithuania = 0.939 improvement
  4. Almaty, Kazakstan = 0.922 improvement
  5. Cotonou, Benin = 0.918 improvement
  6. Sofia, Bulgaria = 0.899 improvement
  7. Dakar, Senegal = 0.864 improvement
  8. Conakry, Guinea = 0.833 improvement
  9. Niamey, Niger = 0.812 improvement
  10. Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo = 0.787 improvement
grayscale photograph group of children

Some of the biggest improvements in subjective well-being come from the continent of Africa, with six out of the top 10 cities coming from there. Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the other two main areas with the biggest jump in subjective well-being in the early part of the 21st Century.

Which Cities Feel the Most Hopeful About the Future?

Below is the top ten most optimistic cities and how they imagine their subjective well-being will be in the future:

  1. Tashkent, Uzbekistan = 8.390 average future subjective well-being
  2. San Miguelito, Panama = 8.372 average
  3. San Jose, Costa Rica = 8.347 average
  4. Accra, Ghana = 8.297 average
  5. Panama City, Panama = 8.286 average
  6. Aarhus, Denmark = 8.286 average
  7. Copenhagen, Denmark = 8.208 average
  8. Helsinki, Finland = 8.206 average
  9. Atlanta, USA = 8.204 average
  10. Freetown, Sierra Leone = 8.203 average
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Central America seems to be very optimistic about their future, especially the two countries of Panama and Costa Rica. Atlanta is the only USA city to crack the top ten in any of the categories in this article, and Scandinavia remains hopeful about things continuing to improve going forward, especially Denmark and Finland. Tashkent in Uzbekistan comes out of nowhere to win this category, although Central Asia has had some big improvements in their subjective well-being over the last 15 years. Ghana and Sierra Leone are also expecting that things will continue to improve for them, with greater levels of happiness predicted in their main cities than anywhere in Australia or Western Europe in the future.

Which Cities Experience the Most Positive Emotions?

Here are the top ten cities in the world with the highest levels of positive affect:

  1. Asuncion, Paraguay = .892/1
  2. Mogadishu, Somalia = .877/1
  3. Vientiane, Laos = .873/1
  4. San Pedro Sula, Honduras = .867/1
  5. Quito, Ecuador = .862/1
  6. San Jose, Costa Rica = .860/1
  7. Cork, Ireland = .857/1
  8. Reykjavik, Iceland = .855/1
  9. Santiago, Chile = .853/1
  10. Montevideo, Uruguay = .850/1
Asuncion, Paraguay

These rankings are based off of people’s responses to the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS). The 10-item positive affect scale measures how much people describe feeling active, alert, attentive, determined, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, interested, proud and strong on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much. South American cities seem to rate quite high on this scale with Asuncion in Paraguay winning by quite a bit, Quito in Ecuador landing in the top 5, and Santiago in Chile and Montevideo in Uruguay rounding out the top 10. Central America have two cities in the top 6, with Somalia having the lone city from Africa, Laos the only city from Asia, and Ireland and Iceland representing Europe.

Which Cities Report the Fewest Negative Emotions?

The top ten cities with the lowest levels of negative affect:

  1. Taipei, Taiwan = .110/1
  2. Prishtine, Kosovo = 0.132/1
  3. Shanghai, China = 0.140/1
  4. Talinn, Estonia = 0.144/1
  5. Singapore = 0.144/1
  6. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan = 0.144/1
  7. Baku, Azerbaijan = 0.145/1
  8. Wellington, New Zealand = 0.152/1
  9. Almaty, Kazakhstan = 0.158/1
  10. Moscow, Russia = 0.159/1
city during nighttime

These rankings are also based off of people’s responses to the PANAS. The 10-item negative affect scale assesses how much people report feeling afraid, ashamed, distressed, guilty, hostile, irritable, jittery, nervous, scared and upset on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much. Unlike many of the other findings, Asia and Eastern Europe come out on top, with no sign of African or North, Central or South American countries in the top 10. Taiwan, China and Singapore all rank in the top 5, indicating low levels of negatively reported emotions in this region. Unfortunately, low negative affectivity doesn’t seem to result in super high levels of reported happiness or life satisfaction, as the only city to rank in the top 10 in any other section is Wellington, New Zealand.

road between trees near snow capped mountains

Conclusion

If you want to go where people are most satisfied with their life, Finland is the place to be, as it has been rated the happiest country in the world for three years now. Helsinki also takes the crown for the city with the highest life satisfaction at present, but other cities in Scandinavia aren’t too far behind.

When you explore the data a little further, it gets a bit more complicated as to where the happiest places in the world are. No Australian city ranks in the top 10 in the world for recent improvement in life satisfaction, optimism about life satisfaction in the future, or levels of positive or negative affectivity. Only one US city (Atlanta for optimism about the future) makes the top ten for any of these categories, and UK countries are nowhere to be seen for any of them.

Conversely, there are many cities in Africa and Central Asia where well-being has been improving at a fast pace over the last 15 years and their citizens remain excited about the potential for what is yet to come. None more so than Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Central America also has a number of cities that are feeling happy and hopeful about their future, especially in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras.

Based on the findings, South America has the most cities that report a lot of positive emotions in the present, and Asia and Eastern Europe win out on minimal negative emotions. Personally, the idea of living somewhere with minimally reported negative emotions and a high level of life satisfaction sounds pretty good to me. Wellington, you might be just what I am looking for…

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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