How to become the happiest country on Earth twice

Things here either burn, bite or sting. So why on earth is this place so happy?

The Gallup Well-Being Index has declared this tropical country the happiest on Earth. Not once, but twice upon a time. So as an international well-being researcher, I felt compelled to travel there and explore possible explanations for these statistics. Why are people in this small country so happy? What is it that makes its people flourish? What can we learn from them? Join us on our field research trip to… Panama.


A ship being guided through a Panama Canal lock by ‘mules’

Who says Panama, says canal. The Panama Canal is worth about one billion US$ each year. It is the largest contributor to the economy of this small central American country. So to what extent could this explain the happiness of its citizens? From country-level research, we know that inhabitants of exceptionally poor countries tend to be unhappy indeed. But once a certain income level is reached, extra money does not seem to make a country as a whole much happier any more. This phenomenon is known as the Easterlin Paradox (which I explain in this video). So the Panama Canal revenues may have increased well-being at first, but may not add too much of it any more.


Rainy season in Panama

Panama is a tropical country in every sense of the word. It is hot and humid. Yet generally speaking, weather and sunshine do not seem to correlate with country well-being. For some people, not enough light in winter may lead to a disorder called “depression with seasonal pattern”, so on an individual basis, weather can impact your well-being indeed. Yet on a country level, there hardly seems to be a correlation with well-being. Which is good for Panama, because it does have a rainy season (though still very hot).


Panamanian youth celebrating their school graduation

The flora and fauna in Panama is extremely diverse. This is probably due to this narrow strip of land where all kinds of creatures from all over the continent converge. The same applies to the Panamanian population, which is equally diverse and colorful. Research indicates that diversity not always associates positively with well-being, but Panamanians seem to have found a way to live harmoniously together in an easy-going tolerant way of life.


Panamanian Police Officer

People in Panama seem to have a high level of trust in their future and (to a somewhat lesser degree) in each other. From country-level research, we know that trust is strongly associated with well-being. Also the opposite is true: if you cannot trust your fellow countrymen (as when they seem corrupt), chances are your country suffers from low well-being indicators. My personal impression is that on average, Panamanians seem to care about each other. And as Prof. Chris Peterson summarized his decades of well-being research in three simple words: ‘Other people matter’.

So how did Panama become so happy? It is always difficult to pinpoint causal relationships, but it appears to me that it may at least be partly due to its culture that treasures diversity, tolerance, optimism, warmth and care for each other.



Zooikoorts (Clutteritis) in Libelle Magazine

Hein Zegers: ‘Op jonge leeftijd verloor ik mijn beide ouders en mijn enige broer. Daardoor gaat een mens misschien wat sneller nadenken over wat nu écht belangrijk is. Het leven is zo fragiel en kostbaar, zonde om het te verspillen aan krampachtig verzamelen van spullen en zinloze drukte.’

Uit: Libelle Nederland Special (September 2017), dat zes volledige pagina’s wijdt aan ‘Zooikoorts’ (naar het gelijknamige boek verschenen bij Lannoo).

(English version below)

Libelle Gezond (Nederland) Special, September 2017, p. 93-98.

Hein Zegers: ‘At a fairly young age, I lost both my parents and my only brother. Maybe that makes a person think twice about what is really important. Life is so fragile and precious, what a pity to waste it gathering stuff and being mindlessly busy.’

Excerpt from Libelle, the oldest Dutch Women’s magazine. Special September 2017 issue that spends six full pages on the subject of the book ‘Clutteritis’.

Double Interview with Emily Esfahani Smith & Hein Zegers

Fragment from a double interview with Emily Esfahani Smith & Hein Zegers in Marie Claire (Belgium), September 2017, p. 96-98 (“There is more to life than being happy”):

Hein Zegers, Well-Being researcher and author of Clutteritis (Zooikoorts, Lannoo Publishing) also has mixed feelings about the happiness hype. “Happiness studies are often about averages, but a human is no average. Take soccer, for example. To some, soccer is the ultimate happiness booster, whereas for others, it is a nightmare. Or take mindfulness: it may be beneficial, but not for everybody. Or take people that are mildly depressed: they tend to become even more depressed when they are exposed to the well-meaning advice of a happiness guru.

Next, there is the compulsory character of the happiness industry. It is as if we are almost obliged to be happy. Just living a satisfied life is not enough these days, it has to be wild and exciting. Before we know it, we are busy keeping up appearances all day. Loudly proclaiming, like a Hyacinth Bucket, how incredibly happy we are.


Beating stress and burnout with BASICS

Hein Zegers: “The BASICS method often translates into the 80/20 rule: 20% of your carefully selected activities produce 80% of your positive results.” (photo by Pieter van Goethem)

How can companies protect workers against stress and burnout? Well-Being researcher Hein Zegers shares his insights on the topic.

“The BASICS therapeutic approach is a routine based on empirical research conducted among people who consciously choose a more brain-friendly environment”, he explains in an interview with Mensura, Belgium’s largest External Occupational Health Service.

BASICS is the acronym for Back (taking a step back), Attention, Select (what is really essential), Invest (in what is essential) and Cut (what is not essential). By cutting down on the number of activities or tasks on your to-do list, you will experience more Sense (meaningfulness). Within a work context, the BASICS method often translates into the 80/20 rule: 20% of your carefully selected activities produce 80% of your positive results.

Full interview in English: Beating stress and burnout with BASICS

Volledig interview in het NederlandsBlijf stress en burn-out de baas met de BASICS-methode

L’interview intégrale en françaisMaîtriser le stress et le burn-out avec la méthode BASICS

Google: The happiest workplace on Earth?

Visiting #1 ‘Great Place To Work’ Google HQ in Mountain View, California

According to the Great Places to Work index, Google is once again the top 1 employer this year. So as an international Well-Being Researcher, I headed towards Mountain View, California, and visited them to find out: is Google the happiest workplace on Earth?

How is it to work for the company that steers the world’s leading search engine as well as Gmail, YouTube, Android, Chrome, Maps, Translate, and literally hundreds of other applications? With many more in the pipeline, including self-driving cars (I’ve been inside one), contact lenses that measure your glucose levels, internet balloons, home automation, individualized medicine, life extension technology, etc…?

Free Lunch

Are Google Employees happy indeed? For sure, Google has been known for its many employee perks. There are free laundry facilities, children’s day care, you can even get a free haircut.

Google Haircut

We know from research that physical movement is good for your subjective well-being. And indeed, Google offers all kinds of free sports facilities, including free gym, Yoga and fitness classes and a central beach volley court, just to name a few.

Happy Bike

Google’s free multi-colored bikes are everywhere: as an employee, you just grab one to move from one building to the other. From country-level research, we know that using bikes is strongly correlated with happiness. But using bikes at Google is not only healthy and happiness-inducing, it’s also practical: Google Campus is so huge that on foot, you can keep walking for half an hour straight and still be on Google grounds.

Google Food

The food trucks and cafeterias offer free and healthy food. Their interior is simple but effective, and remind me of my favorite Alma Mater student restaurant. As many employee facilities here, they offer plenty opportunity to network and be among other people – one more factor that we know from research as essential to our well-being.

Zero Emission: free solar power for Googlers


Google has a clear mission statement: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Until recently, the unofficial mission statement had been  ‘Don’t be evil’. Recently this has been replaced by ‘Do the right thing’. Which, psychologically speaking, makes sense: most parts of our brain cannot process negative utterances, so I suppose there was the danger that with a statement like ‘Don’t be evil’ only the ‘evil’ part keeps sticking…

Google: heaven for proud geeks

Google claims to actively embrace diversity, and that is visible: the workforce is extremely international, you hear all kinds of languages spoken on campus, facilities abound when you’re a parent or pregnant, there are gender-neutral toilets, etcetera.


One of my quirks is that next to investigating everything there is, I also love to look for what is not present. So it struck me that one category of people is clearly underrepresented: the elderly.

Thomas, a former Googler from Belgium, explains: ‘First you do your thing at Google for a few years. Then your work experience is becoming so valuable, that you can seize better opportunities at other companies. That’s also what I’ve done. But generally speaking, Google is indeed a great place to work.’

Voluntary Simplicity, Well-being and Meaning in Life. A Multilingual Empirical Study of 500+ People who Consciously Choose for Simple and Slow Living.

Hein Zegers presenting the BASICS model of Voluntary Simplifying at the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Montréal

Zegers, H. (2017). Voluntary Simplicity, Well-being and Meaning in Life. A Multilingual Empirical Study of 500+ People who Consciously Choose for Simple and Slow Living. Podium Presentation at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology, Montréal, July 13-16, 2017.

KU Leuven University

Hein Zegers has been co-authoring and co-moderating the introductory chapter of the KU Leuven Leuven University EdX MOOC ‘Existential Well-Being Counseling’ by Prof. Mia Leijssen. He has also been giving guest lectures at several faculties of the university.

UC Berkeley

Hein Zegers has been Teaching Assistant for the world’s very first MOOC on “The Science of Happiness” (University of California, Berkeley) for over 200.000 Students from all over the world.
Main Responsibility: Community Teaching Assistance for the first chapter “Introduction to the Science of Happiness”.

Evidence Based Happiness vzw

Evidence Based Happiness vzw is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to spread the Science of Well-Being, in a way that is both understandable and scientifically accurate.

This educational/research organization obtained official non-profit status (“vzw”) on the first official United Nations World Happiness Day (March 20, 2013).

Through its numerous research and science dissemination activities, Evidence Based Happiness vzw has been touching the lives of more than ten million people worldwide, especially in the Dutch-French-English-German language area in Europe.

Evidence Based Happiness vzw embodies a large network of academics as well as practitioners. It is a spin-off of KU Leuven, recently rated by Reuters as the most innovative university in Europe. Its three co-founders are all licensed psychologists who graduated from this university: Liesbeth Vander Elst (Research & Sports Psychologist), Els Verheyen (Clinical Psychologist & Social Worker) and Hein Zegers (Clinical/Positive Psychologist & Science Communicator).

Some organizations that Evidence Based Happiness vzw has been cooperating with.

Students of the International Positive Psychology Association

Co-Founder & first Executive Committee Member (Jan 2010-Jun 2012)

Hein Zegers has co-founded and served a full 2-year term as Executive Committee Member of SIPPA, the Student section of IPPA, the International Positive Psychology Association.
Main responsibilities: spreading the Science of Positive Psychology by setting up a world-wide network of local representatives & help recruiting over 1800 paying student members.