Belgium is Tenth “Happiest” Country

By alison - May 18, 2009 (Updated: November 27, 2014)

Bxl082008-034 When people ask me what it is I love about living in Europe, I’m hard-pressed to put my finger on the answer. Usually I reply with a catchall phrase like the “life-style” or “quality of life.” A recent study, released by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), shows I’m not alone. Northern Europe tops the list of “Happiest Places in the World.”

In fact, all but two (Canada and New Zealand) of the top ten “happiest” countries were European. It didn’t surprise me to see Ireland, Norway and The Netherlands on the list. Once again, however, Belgium edged onto the list at number ten.

Much as I love Brussels, I have a hard time thinking of it as innately “happy.” In fact, many expats find it pretty hard to break into Belgian society. There is a reservedness that many find off-putting. The grey weather often seems reflected in the sombre colour choices for clothing and cars that seem to prevail here. Customer-service can be indifferent at best and down-right chilly at worst. And of course we can never forget the government bureaucracy and paperwork.

So what makes people in Belgium seem happy? For the survey, a representative sample of no more than 1000 people over age 15 were asked questions. For example:

Did you enjoy something you did yesterday? Were you proud of something you did yesterday? Did you learn something yesterday? Were you treated with respect yesterday?

Stats for Belgium from Forbes:

Satisfaction With Present Life: 76.3*

Predicted Satisfaction With Future Life: 75.5*

2009 Gross Domestic Product Per Capita: $49,888**

Unemployment Rate: 6.5%***

*Source: Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development

**Source: International Monetary Fund

***Source: Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook

Economic health played a roll in the highest scoring countries, as did unemployment. However, as the saying goes, money isn’t everything.

The OECD data shows that another important factor is work-life balance. While Scandinavian countries boast a high GDP per capita, the average workweek in that part of the world is no more than 37 hours. In China, which got a low score of just 14.8, the workweek is 47 hours and the GDP per capita is just $3,600.

Balancing life and work is something that Belgians do well. There is a distinct separation here between home-life and work-life. The business district of Brussels is a ghost-town by 6:30 on most evenings. Although frustrating from a customer service standpoint, if a store says it closes at 6, you can expect to be herded to the door by 5:45. August is virtually dead in Belgium, with shops and businesses closed for vacations.

While the North American work-ethic is slowly making its way across the Atlantic, I hope Europeans won’t cash in their happiness for more money because a better quality of life is something that money alone can’t buy.

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Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
I loved my time in Riga, Latvia a few years ago and Adi's post takes me right back. It's a European travel... - 3 days ago


  1. Comment by N

    N May 18, 2009 at 15:07

    I think there’s also a significant difference between the north (Dutch-speaking) and south (French-speaking) part of the country. This goes for work ethics, work-life balance, general hapiness in life, etc.

  2. Comment by Alison

    Alison May 18, 2009 at 15:18

    Absolutely! And I think Brussels is a different beast as well. Obviously the survey and my own observations are generalised but it would be interesting to know where the Belgians polled were from.

  3. Comment by Lydia

    Lydia May 20, 2009 at 13:41

    One of the reasons we moved from the US to Belgium is because of the better quality of life here – more vacations and fewer working ours. However, that comes hand-in-hand with restricted opening hours, and fewer workplace social events.
    Still, I think this part of Europe gets it right most of the time, when it comes to the things that truly make people happy.

  4. Comment by Alison

    Alison May 20, 2009 at 13:46

    Lydia – I agree! Yes, it’s a pain that shops close early sometimes but do we really need everything to be open 24/7? I think it’s more important that people have time to spend with their friends and families than the ability to buy frozen peas at 3am.

  5. Comment by N

    N May 20, 2009 at 21:43

    Overall I think there’s a good balance…Or maybe I’m just lucky to live in a neighbourhood were there’s a Deli and a Super GB, both open 7/7, and the Deli until 22 pm 😉

  6. Comment by N

    N May 20, 2009 at 21:45

    Overall, I think there’s a good balance. Or maybe I’m just lucky to live in a neighbourhood where there’s a Deli and an Express GB, both open 7/7, and the Deli until 22 pm 😉

  7. Comment by Australian in Belgium

    Australian in Belgium May 21, 2009 at 22:39

    Yes! I can definitely agree with the OECD’s study on this one. Compared to Australia Belgians work fewer hours, take more holidays and enjoy longer maternity pay,enjoy a better health care system, better public transport and lots of other advantages. I’ve enjoyed living here because of the quality of life, and that is even despite trading in the warm Aussie climate and the long shop opening hours. I think it depends what matters to you, but for me Belgium gets it right!

  8. Comment by Alison

    Alison May 22, 2009 at 11:03

    It’s great to hear from so many happy expats in Belgium! This has typically been the reaction I get from most expats I’ve met here. I wonder though if it is also true of Belgians? And how does one actually define ‘happy’?

  9. Comment by N

    N May 25, 2009 at 22:39

    The way I see it, Belgians are fairly traditional. And see themselves as “happy” when they own their own house (preferably in the village where they grew up), have the 2.5 kids running around (+ dog), and have a well-paid job for 38 hours a week. I correspond by no means to these criteria – but I’m happy ;-)!
    By the way: nice to see happy expats!

  10. Comment by Alison

    Alison May 26, 2009 at 10:26

    N – I think the “traditional” ideal for happiness is the same the world over… at least it is in Canada. I obviously have never been a “traditional” gal either 🙂

  11. Comment by Anne

    Anne September 13, 2009 at 18:49

    Dear Fellow Expats,

    I have been happily living in Brussels for one month after 15 years in USA and Japan. I love cities and really enjoy walking and going to local specialty shops or open fresh markets. I put this as happiness factor #1 compare to cities like Atlanta where nobody is walking and use drive-have the same shops and even if stores are open 24/7 I found shopping there pretty boring.

    The second happiness factor for me is the large diversity of the international and expat communities and unlimited opportunities for small businesses. There are a lot of resources, websites and networking groups and I found the Belgian very active and responsive to partnership.

    I already started doing business as an expat coach. I am not sure if I am a typical French anymore after 20 years of expatriation but of course speaking French and English makes the connections easier. I enjoyed very much Tokyo and New York for same reasons.

    Happy Expat
    .-= Anne´s last blog ..Wha’ts Your Google Quotient ? =-.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison September 14, 2009 at 11:15

      Hi Anne! I’m glad you found me. I just had a quick peek at your blog and will have to spend some time reading through all of the great info you have! I agree that North America in general has evolved around cars and not walking and it is something I love about European cities. It’s nice not to have to rely on anything but your feet to get around and you are able to see so much more detail. The diversity of Brussels really makes it a special place t be. I’ve found that unlike other large cities the expat communities seem to mingle much more here, rather than sticking to their own nationalities. It’s a great opportunity to have friends from around the world.

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