What countries come to mind when you think of paradise? If tropical islands are the first images, think again. According to the World Happiness Report, the happiest nations are among the coldest. These include Nordic countries like Norway, Denmark, and Finland.
However, a handful of Caribbean nations are on the list. The ones that often appear in the World Happiness Report include Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and Jamaica. I was born in Jamaica, and you might be surprised to hear I grew up believing that the happiest places in the world existed outside of Jamaica—places we often refer to as “foreign.”
To the outsider looking in, Jamaica has no problems. Perhaps it is because of the smiling faces of tourists chilling on beaches with cocktails in their hands. Maybe it is due to slogans like “Jamaica, No Problem” and “Irie, Jamaica.”
What is “irie” anyway? That is the Jamaican word for “happy.” It means all things pleasing, good, and nice. Yet the creators of the word have a less-than-joyful Jamaican story. Irie is a word created by Rastafarians, a minority group in Jamaica who have historically faced persecution at the hands of their government.
In fact, Jamaica has problems—serious ones. While living on the other side of paradise, I saw smiling faces. I also saw limited economic opportunities and the stress and distress it caused my family and surrounding community.
So, how did Jamaica make the list of happy nations, even if some Jamaicans like myself could not see it? It may be because of how the World Happiness Report measures happiness.
Since 2012, the World Happiness Report has offered scientific evidence of well-being on a global scale. Instead of merely focusing on economic development or GDP, scientists expanded the definition of prosperity to include measures of well-being like social support, healthy life expectancy (physical and mental health), freedom, and generosity. In 2021, during the height of the COVID pandemic, Jamaica ranked 37th on the list of 149 nations. While the rate has since declined to 61st, a range that is more typical for the island, according to 2023 reports, this statistic is still intriguing, given how much of an outlier Jamaica is in the rankings.
In fact, when you look at the factors researchers use to measure subjective well-being, I can see why Jamaica ranks so high. None of these steps toward greater happiness will surprise long-time readers of Greater Good, but their manifestation in the real-world culture of Jamaica could help bring them to life. If someone like me, who grew up there, can learn about happiness from Jamaica, then maybe you can, too—and in the process, you might learn things about the island that you won’t as a tourist.
1. Fostering supportive relationships
One way to increase happiness is to have supportive relationships. According to the World Happiness Report, social connection is consistently the most significant factor contributing to happiness. Social support is usually measured by asking people whether they have a network of family and friends to rely on during crises or times of need.
My ancestors created cultural norms and ideals to foster and maintain an individual and communal sense of mutual aid and reciprocity. For example, I grew up hearing elders expressing and demonstrating sentiments of support through words and deeds. Common proverbs included sayings like “one ‘an wash de ada” (one hand washes the other) or “good fren betta dan pocket money” (a good friend is better than wealth). These norms were important because Jamaica is a country that lacks a public safety net. As a result, citizens must often rely on the support of family members and friends in times of need.
The idea that happiness can come from great friendships is significant when one needs informational and moral support. Informational support includes giving and receiving mentorship or advice to navigate new and unfamiliar terrains of life. Sharing life lessons could help to alleviate overwhelm or avoid potential pitfalls. Yet more than giving advice, having a friend who lends a listening ear or says a comforting word to one in distress is golden.
2. Setting boundaries—even if it makes others unhappy
Setting boundaries is another side to support that is essential to well-being. Yet the skill of setting boundaries has been perhaps the most difficult for me to develop. One such skill is learning to say “no.”
In this instance, Jamaica might be a somewhat negative lesson. For me, saying “no” felt distressing because I was going against a culture and social code of being a good person. In Jamaica, being self-sacrificing is often celebrated and honored, especially for women. As a result, it has been essential for my well-being to cultivate social bonds that support boundaries.
So, while the culture of Jamaica poses challenges to boundaries, I’ve seen that changing in recent years, and certainly in my own life. My well-being has been enhanced by having friends, including those outside of my culture, who are learning to set boundaries in their family and social networks. These friends have offered moral support and helped to lessen the impact of internal and external guilt.
If you are from a family or culture that values giving at the expense of your physical and mental health, start taking small steps to foster healthy boundaries. If someone needs to vent about work or other life issues, set a timer. That way, you can be of support and also make time to create positive bonding memories and experiences.
3. Cultivate a spiritual practice
The science of happiness indicates that cultivating a spiritual practice can contribute to well-being. Practices such as prayer, singing, chanting, and meditation can serve as supportive wellness tools. My grandparents, parents, teachers, and mentors taught me many of these spiritual practices while I was a child in Jamaica. However, some I developed during adulthood on my own. These new practices include meditation and mindfulness.
Recent studies on spirituality in Jamaica suggest that there has been an increased use of mediation practices to deal with chronic stress in schools and the workplace. For example, a study of 12 high school principals in Jamaican urban areas showed that prayer and mindfulness meditation practices served as a coping strategy for work-related stress and anxiety.
Yet other studies indicate that spirituality can be a barrier to well-being in Jamaica and the diaspora. For example, a reliance on church and spiritual support is often prioritized over mental health services, which still carries a stigma. However, this may be changing in some families. I know it has for mine.
4. Listen to music
Music has a positive effect on psychological, physical, and social well-being. Like people in other countries, Jamaicans listen to many genres of music, such as roots reggae, dance hall, soca, jazz, R&B, gospel, classical, and country. However, Jamaica is known globally for reggae music, especially the music popularized by Bob Marley.
Since Marley’s songs often include lyrics that express the wisdom and everyday idioms of the people, I often draw on the proverb from his songs as a source of comfort in times of emotional or social distress. However, one need not understand reggae lyrics to benefit from its positive emotional effects.
One study found that reggae music had a positive effect on social well-being. The study included 45 participants between the ages of 18 and 25. These participants were invited to listen to excerpts of music from reggae, jazz, disco, and trap and were asked to describe how they felt after listening to the music. Of the four genres, reggae, disco, and jazz evoke feelings of happiness for participants. Disco and reggae evoked the most positive feelings and inspired physical activity. However, reggae was more likely to incite the imagination of chilling and engaging in moderate physical activity like walking, while disco inspired higher-intensity exercise.
So, here’s what Jamaica has to teach you: Whether or not you enjoy reggae, take time to listen to music. Select songs that offer a sense of calm, happiness, or courage. Moreover, consider using music to inspire physical activity if you don’t already do so.
5. Move your body
Jamaicans have historically excelled in sports, especially track and field. But one need not be an Olympian to exercise. Researchers have long found that engaging in physical activity can help reduce stress, tension, and anxiety. Exercise can also ignite feel-good hormones like dopamine and endorphins, helping to keep the mood high and improving quality of life.
I was recently reminded of an old Jamaican cultural practice while working with my mother’s walking group. It is the old common farewell, “walk good.” Before widespread access to transportation, most Jamaicans walked to their destinations. Instead of saying goodbye to fellow family, friends, and community members, one would bid their countryman a safe journey by saying “walk good!” Walking has become a key part of my health and wellness ritual. It is a habit that I share with my mother and husband.
To increase your level of happiness, take some time to walk, run, dance, swim, play a sport, or do another form of physical activity that you enjoy. Consider trying activities that are outside of your comfort zone. For example, take inspiration from the Jamaican bobsled team. This group of athletes ventured to participate in a sport in a climate that was way outside of their comfort zone. Make exercise an adventure; your body, heart, and mind will thank you later.
6. Eat for pleasure and vitality
One of the most essential places to experience happiness is on the plate. While I was a picky eater for much of my childhood, I loved most fruits and vegetables. These foods were often free and easily accessible because I lived in the rural areas of Jamaica, where my parents and grandparents had many fruit trees and gardens. Little did I know that this was contributing to my health. Back then, food was just food, and it was delicious.
A growing body of research indicates a diet consisting of mainly whole plant-based ingredients can improve physical and mental health. Moreover, eating ultra-processed foods and foods high in sugar can not only lead to weight gain and other physical health conditions but also affect mood and contribute to depression.
Since the 1960s, Rastafarians have promoted healthy eating on the island. Long before the word vegan or plant-based became popular, Rastafarians developed a lifestyle and cuisine they refer to as ital food. Ital is the Rastafarian word for vitality. They believe that natural, plant-based food is both energizing and nourishing. I also believe that healthy food can be pleasurable.
7. Spend time in nature
The main attraction to Jamaica is its beaches and lush landscape. Whether or not you can travel to the islands, being in nature can serve the function of a micro-vacation, an escape to an alternate reality or world. Studies suggest that spending as little as 10 to 20 minutes each day in nature can help to reduce stress and enhance overall well-being.
The next time you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, imagine that you are on the beach. Imagine seeing and hearing the waves gently crashing on the shore. Most of all, if you can and feel safe, spend time in nature. Visit the beach, mountains, river, stream, park, botanical garden. Take care of a plant or join a community garden.
More than merely spending time in nature, try cultivating a deeper relationship with the land and plants. In Jamaica, there is a traditional birthing ritual where parents bury the placental and umbilical cord of newborns at the root of coconut or breadfruit trees. Both trees can live up to 100 years, when planted in favorable conditions. According to my aunt, our ancestors believed that as the child and tree grows, they can both thrive together.
I was happy to discover that my mother buried my umbilical cord at the root of a coconut tree, like it had been done for her when she was a baby. Some elders use this birthing ritual to instill a sense of responsibility in children. For example, children learn to care for their birth trees. In other cases, parents give children small plots of land to grow crops and teach subsistence farming, a skill essential for survival and well-being.
Whether you live in a rural or urban area, being in nature and caring for plants can help to enhance your level of happiness. This could also help to add years to your life.
Data from the World Happiness Report allowed me to reflect on happiness practices from my culture. I took these lessons for granted as a child. However, as I got older, I use these wisdoms of wellness to cope and to weather the storms of life. It is likely that your culture has similar lessons or ones that you might need to uncover from your own culture. I encourage you to explore your happiness traditions—even if your country did not make the list of happiest countries!