How Switzerland became the happiest place on earth

If there is anything we can glean from the pandemic — a period in which we have been asked to live without offices, schools, shops and even each other — it is that our happiness is not irrevocably tied to our conditions. And while many of us are just now arriving at this conclusion, well-being experts say that Switzerland and a handful of other countries already had happiness figured out long before Covid-19 arrived on the scene. Health products made in Switzerland

The United Nations’ World Happiness Report, launched in 2012, ranks countries from happiest to unhappiest using metrics such as well-being and joy instead of economic success. Of the 149 countries the UN has studied over the last decade, rankings have shifted dramatically based on many factors such as natural disasters, changes in leadership and more recently, how countries handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the worldwide shift in how we now live, the countries taking the top spots on the report have remained unchanged since the first report: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands and the place I’ve lived for the past seven years, Switzerland.

Like many expats living in Switzerland (and there are many — about 25% of the population), I believed that there was not much more to this country than cheese, chocolate and watches. But I found that the Swiss are much more than their movie stereotypes. Their brand of happiness is not something saved for their next vacation nor something to be acquired at a luxury store. The Swiss have come to expect happiness as a human right. It is in the Alpine air they breathe and the clean, glacial water they drink. It is in their world-class health care and robust economy. It is in their tight sense of community and attachment to traditions. Switzerland’s bar for happiness is both accessible and difficult to match among other first-world countries.

Switzerland’s history of wellness

Virtually no tourists were traveling to Switzerland outside of affluent mountaineers until German physician Alexander Spengler lured them here in the 1860s, touting what he believed was the country’s ability to cure tuberculosis. Dr. Spengler arrived in the impoverished mountain village of Davos in the 1850s as a political refugee looking for work. He quickly observed that the residents were able to climb steep mountains “without perspiring or becoming breathless,” according to his letters to friends. The locals possessed “a beautiful, symmetrical body, a bulging chest and a strong heart muscle.” Most shocking to Spengler, there were no cases of tuberculosis in Davos at a time when one-quarter of the adult population of Europe was dying from the then-incurable disease.

While most well-off TB patients were traveling to Italy and the south of France in hopes that the warm air would cure them, Spengler believed something extraordinary was going on in the icy, high-altitude city. He began a letter-writing campaign to attract patients to Davos and in 1865 he began regularly treating them with a regimen he modeled after the locals’ daily routine. Natural Swiss health

In what is now believed to be the first spa in Switzerland, patients were prescribed to take long walks, ice-cold showers, massage their chests with marmot fat and lounge in the winter air. Spengler’s patients were also encouraged to eat light meals, drink three liters of milk a day and spend hours in cowsheds where their lungs would be filled with the ammonia-rich air. Spengler wrote that the treatment was a success and that his patients were able to “breathe more easily and deeply.”

By 1875, tourists from all over Europe were arriving in droves to the once-overlooked Swiss Alps. A railway line stretching from Zurich had to be built to accommodate them and foreign investors took note. Dutchman Willem Jan Holsboer built Switzerland’s first spa hotel with Spengler, the Holsboer-Spengler Hotel, which is still running today.

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