One Secret to the Happy Swiss Life

As you have scrolled through your social media feeds, I am guessing that you have come across at least one article touting the top cities and countries around the world. And if so, you may have noticed that Switzerland and Zurich are constantly at the top of the ranks for “Best in the World.”

Why do Switzerland and its largest city earn such high marks? According to various studies, surveys, and sources, the Alpine country scores well on essential social factors like quality of life, cleanliness, safety, political stability, overall wealth, etc. Take these excerpts for example:

In January, the European Commission dropped its yearly Flash Eurobarometer of quality of life in European cities, a huge survey of how happy people in hundreds of cities across Europe are.

#4. Zurich — 64% very satisfied, 34% satisfied. Switzerland’s financial centre frequently ranks amongst the best cities on earth to live in, and its citizens seem to know it. 98% of people living in Zurich say they’re happy with their life.

Business Insider UK: These are the 19 happiest cities in Europe, according to the people who live there (February 2016)

Mercer, one of the world’s largest HR consultancy firms, releases its “Quality of Living Index” annually, which looks at cities that provide the best quality of life.

#2. Zurich, Switzerland — The city is known as the country’s economic and cultural hub, which regularly tops not just Mercer’s list, but others as well for being one of the best places to live in the world.

Business Insider UK: The 27 cities with the best quality of life in the world (May 2016)

Switzerland took the top spot for the first time based on a combination of its attitude toward education, democracy, business and quality of life.

NY Times: The Best Country in the World? Survey Says It’s Switzerland (March 2017)

Switzerland is the best country in the world, according to a new study from U.S. News & World Report.

#1. Switzerland — Switzerland is the best country on Earth, according to US News & World Report. The small European country earned its place at the top thanks to its progressive social systems, protection of human rights, and business-friendly environment.

INSIDER: RANKED: The 24 best countries in the world (March 2017)

Wow – that’s quite a list of accolades! While these reports do emphasize critical issues that can make a city or country a wonderful place to live (and visit!), I believe they are missing the “secret ingredient” to the so-called “happy Swiss life.”

Do you have a guess as to what makes Swiss life so good?

No, it’s not a delightful overabundance of cheese and chocolate.

Nor is it a penchant for sporting high-end watches and luxury vehicles.

And no, it’s not the nation’s neutrality status in global affairs.

I’ll give you a hint…

Gardens here, gardens there, gardens, gardens everywhere!

You guys can call me crazy, but I am convinced that GARDENS are the real secret behind Switzerland’s top ratings and the key to the happy Swiss life!

Wait, what?

Ok, that’s a bit tongue in cheek. Of course, gardens don’t trump critical social elements such as public safety and fantastic health care. But keep reading and allow me to explain my theory of how gardens do contribute to Switzerland’s stardom on the global stage:

Gardens are the visible evidence of an integral value of Swiss culture that is absent from so many surveys: a dedication to earthly cultivation and a deepseeded appreciation of Nature. Although gardening may seem an unlikely source behind a successful nation, I believe that Nature-with-a-capital-N has everything to do with why Switzerland remains in the top tier of Happiest Countries on Earth (ref: World Happiness Report 2017).

Even in the heart of Old Town Zurich, residents still find a way to showcase their love of garden life.

Ever since we moved to Switzerland (two years ago now!), I have noticed the undeniable undercurrent of Nature coursing through various aspects of Swiss culture. After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the secret to the happy Swiss life manifests itself in three primary ways:

1) Swiss gardens of all shapes and sizes

2) Educational programs that foster the appreciation, preservation and incorporation of natural spaces

3) Direct access to “Big Nature” for all ages and abilities

Zurich is surrounded by wooded hills and pristine waters. Nature is not far for city dwellers.

In general, the Swiss are garden people. Fresh blooms and local produce are cherished commodities in almost every household. Whether it’s growing bright red begonias from the windowsill box or planting a sumptuous lineup of vegetables, many Swiss spend their time and resources to nurture the greener, more floral side of life.

Garden allotments are a common sight across all of Switzerland, because a vast number of city dwellers desire their own place to cultivate the earth’s riches. Visitors might think the city blocks full of wooden sheds and shrubbery are urban slums instead of a collection of prized personal garden plots. While they may seem untidy at first glance, garden club memberships and government-issued land parcels are highly sought after possessions among Swiss residents.

The Zürich-Wipkingen Family Garden Club has amazing views overlooking the city of Zurich.

For those who can’t plant, flower shops offer sumptuous arrangements and stunning creations of natural beauty. From nationwide chains to boutique stores, the Blumengeschäft of Switzerland are like art studios for flower fanatics and the green-obsessed. And even though florists’ wares are costly, the Swiss believe that beautiful bouquets are worth the price, as they are much appreciated gifts and dear additions to home decor.

Sure – not every Swiss citizen has a green thumb nor loves floral arrangements as much as I do, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter! Come springtime, everyone benefits from the splash of bright colors spilling off windowsills, dotting the trees, and rising up from sidewalk edges. No matter whether you’re in big cities like Zurich and Geneva or trekking through the smallest mountainside village, you can’t escape the bounty of Swiss gardens! As such, I truly believe gardens add an enchanting and joyful sparkle to life in Switzerland.

Perhaps the garden culture is a result of the many educational programs that foster an appreciation of Nature and support the preservation of natural spaces.

Across the country, Nature is folded into the educational system through various avenues. For example, children from toddling age can enroll in forest-based schools called “Waldkrippe,” where the little tikes spend much of the day literally tromping through the woods. As the National Geographic article “This Is Your Brain on Nature” conveys, getting out into Nature does wonders for our human body, mind and soul. And it seems to me that Swiss educators understand the importance of connecting children to their natural surroundings, as they champion a sense of independence and imagination at the same time.

Recently, I was walking my dog #BasiltheKooiker through our neighborhood in Zurich, pondering “my theory” as we moved along. I noticed two women leading a small pack of elementary-aged children across the street, all chatting away. Then – to my surprise and complete satisfaction – every single one of them stopped to take a whiff of the massive rose bush draping over the sidewalk fence. So, there we have it: Swiss folks literally stop to smell the roses. How’s that for learning to appreciate Nature from a young age?!?

Basil also likes to stop and smell the wildflowers…

Perhaps as a result of their upbringing, Swiss communities strive to preserve and incorporate natural spaces as much as possible. The Silberweide at Griefensee, just outside Zurich’s city limits, is an example of one such nature preserve that invites people of all ages to continue learning about Switzerland’s natural settings.

And just a stone’s throw from my apartment, sheep graze in grassy meadows on family-run farms, the tinkle of their bells drifting above the city skyline. In Switzerland, farm life is not relegated only to the countryside, because the countryside has made its way into the city. Or perhaps the city hasn’t been able to completely cast aside the country? Either way, the two are inextricably linked through a harmonious existence, and it seems that the Swiss would have it no other way.

The final – and perhaps most obvious – element to the secret behind Switzerland’s top rankings stretches across the southern portion of the country: The Alps. These geological giants create an enchanting world of “Big Nature,” a world that the Swiss have loved for generations.

While Switzerland is certainly not singular in the fact that it has mountains, what contributes to the “happy Swiss life” is the fact that they are extremely accessible. After all, what good are mountains if you can’t reach them?

Since the mid-19th century, Swiss leaders have recognized the immense value of Alpine tourism – both as an international attraction and a recreational playground for locals. Hence they have invested in the technology of the times to allow every person to reach the highest peaks with minimal effort. From groundbreaking achievements like Europe’s highest railway station at Jungfraujoch to the newly opened Gotthard Base Tunnel (the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world), the Swiss have barreled through and risen to the heights of their Alpine paradise with dedicated ingenuity.

The Alps are a beloved national treasure and the prime example of how direct access to “Big Nature” positively impacts Swiss culture. The mountains are covered with miles of marked footpaths and biking trails; legions of trains, gondolas, and lifts encourage people of all abilities to traverse high alpine meadows; mountainside restaurants invite folks to come and enjoy the great outdoors. And that is exactly what the Swiss do – all year long.

From summer hikes to winter sports, the Swiss spend a significant amount of time in the mountains. Why? Because they understand the value being in Nature, and Switzerland holds a vast number of stunning natural wonders that would take a lifetime to explore.

It may seem like a lofty destination, but anyone of any ability can reach the Oeschinensee, thanks to a network of trails, trains, and gondolas.

Even though global surveys don’t make a connection between gardens, education, and access to Nature like I do, National Geographic does highlight the importance of Switzerland’s “wild spaces” in their rankings:

The world’s happiest country in the 2015 rankings, Switzerland is known for being a prosperous nation with magnificent ski slopes and rich chocolate. Switzerland’s thriving outdoor spaces also afford a healthy lifestyle for its citizens: The country boasts the lowest obesity rates in Europe. Discover some of the wild spaces in Switzerland by canyoning, kayaking, or paragliding in Interlaken to explore the vast mountainous landscape.

National Geographic: Visit the Top 10 Happiest Countries in the World (August 2016)

A cog wheel train will carry you high above Interlaken to the mountaintop paradise of Schynige Platte.

The inescapable presence of gardens, an abundance of forested trails, and seamless avenues to explore the natural surroundings play a significant role in the overall wellbeing of Swiss residents. In my opinion, the Swiss’ dedication to earthly cultivation and their sincere appreciation of Nature positively impact the nation, influencing many factors of Swiss life for a better, happier society.

On my first hike in Switzerland, I couldn’t stop smiling after I came across wild raspberries ripe for the picking.

I am a direct beneficiary of those imbedded cultural values, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a home in Zurich. Truly, there is much to love, appreciate, and be grateful for about this little piece of the world, and it’s this Swiss secret to a happy life that I absolutely adore!

Hey Nature Lovers! What other cities and countries around the world do you think also value urban greenery and beautiful blooms? How do you feel about global rankings? Do you find them fair and accurate or do you balk at the statistics? Do you think the real reason Swiss people are happy is because they consume the most chocolate per capita? I want to hear your thoughts; leave them in the Comment section below!

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