An illustration by Bill Butcher depicting a travel advertisement of Switzerland
© Bill Butcher

Switzerland is the happiest country in the world. That’s official. The UN has published its third World Happiness Report since 2012, and Switzerland is top. You can see why. Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It has avoided the ravages of two European wars. You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time. When I recently took a train from Italy to Switzerland, it left Milan decently late — why need driver or passengers hurry to finish lunch in Italy? But the train pulled into Zürich just as the second hand on the clock clicked to the designated arrival time.

Switzerland is closely followed in the happiness stakes by Iceland, Denmark, Norway and, of course, Canada. But there is another word besides happy that springs to mind when these countries are listed. That word is boring. “Canadian boringness isn’t intrinsic,” the (Canadian) journalist Jeet Heer wrote recently. “It’s something we work at, cherish and reward.”

There are no internationally agreed standards of the world’s most liveable cities. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s survey has been criticised for equating “liveability” with speaking English: eight of its top 10 cities are in Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Helsinki is English-speaking for all practical purposes (necessarily English-speaking for anyone who was not speaking Finnish before they were able to walk). Vienna is a marvellous city, but a museum: a memorial to the architectural splendour and intellectual vitality of an era that has long gone.

The compilers of the other study of liveable cities, the benefit consultants Mercer, clearly have a German phrase book to translate happiness into. Well, what is the German for happiness? Freude? Fröhlichkeit? Or just glück? You will need German in five of its top 10 cities. Mercer shares the EIU’s approval of Vienna, which pips Zürich for the top spot. Düsseldorf is number six.

There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf, but it is hard to imagine one. None of the cities that lift the spirit are on the Mercer or EIU lists of the best places to live. Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt, but however often you have visited, the magic remains. New York, Paris, London, Barcelona and San Francisco are cities whose names make the pulse beat faster, but Adelaide and Toronto do not, and never will. There is evidently a large difference between a great city and a liveable city.

That difference lies behind the rise, and fall, of modernist town planning. The high priest of such rationalism was the (Swiss) architect Le Corbusier, whose ideal city was based on a Plan (always capitalised in his writing) “drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels.”

Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” proposed to bulldoze most of the centre of Paris in favour of large tower blocks. His scheme died in “the frenzy of the mayor’s office” amid the “cries of the electorate”, but Nehru allowed him to build a new capital for Punjab at Chandigarh. Like Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília, it is grand, antiseptic and utterly alien to the country in which it is located. The failure of such artificial cities is demonstrated by the fact that the only Australian city not to make either the Mercer or the EIU list is the country’s capital, Canberra.

The reaction against modernism began in the 1960s with Jane Jacobs’ great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Jacobs’ central insight was that the vibrancy of cities is the product of spontaneous interactions, and these chance encounters are the product of random historic development which cannot be replicated by ordered design. Her analysis was based on careful observation of the everyday life of Greenwich Village. In the words of the political scientist James Scott, Jacobs saw the city from the street, while Le Corbusier viewed it from the air (or, perhaps, like the researchers from Mercer and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, with a checklist and clipboard).

Oeschinen lake in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
Oeschinen lake in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland © Siegfried Eigstler/4Corners

Jacobs’ book began the backlash that finally ended the power of Robert Moses, the master builder (and demolisher) of New York, and halted the decades of rationalism in town planning. The wrecking balls destroyed Penn Station in 1963. But in the 1970s the process began that would lead to Grand Central’s modern incarnation, in which rail tracks and the Oyster Bar coexist with the Apple Store and organic food stalls.

Liveability and happiness are complex concepts. The happiest countries identified by the UN are those of “Jante Law”, the stifling conformity described by Danish author Aksel Sandemose: “You are not to think you are anything special, you are not to think you can teach us anything.” Yet there is much that is good about social homogeneity, shared values, peaceful coexistence and honest government. Life in unhappy countries — Myanmar, Syria, Zimbabwe — is not boring, but much of the population desperately wishes it was.

Yet boring is not enough. Security, hygiene, good public transport — the factors that enter the assessment of liveability — are necessary for a fulfilling life, but they are not sufficient for it. That is why so many young people from Melbourne or Toronto go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity of the great, rather than the liveable, city. For the technology writer Jonah Lehrer, cities are the knowledge engine of the 21st century. And he wasn’t talking about Düsseldorf.

The most intriguing studies of the determinants of happiness are those of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The moments at which people are happiest are when they are in “flow” — when they are engaged in a challenging task and doing it well: the lecture in which you realise the audience is hanging on your ever word, the tennis game in which every shot takes the ball where you want it to go. For many people, bringing up children is a source of endless demands and frustrations, but taken as a whole it is one of the most satisfying experiences of their lives. There is more to the good life than clean water and trains that arrive on time.

It was Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in Graham Greene’s The Third Man, who famously got to the heart of the matter. (The 1949 film noir is set in the immediate postwar era when Vienna was a much more exciting, but much less liveable, city than it is today). Lime says: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

John Kay is an FT columnist. His new book, ‘Other People’s Money’ (2015) is published by Profile Books, £16.99

Photograph: Siegfried Eigstler/4Corners

Illustration by Bill Butcher

Letters in response to this article:

Islington deserves special status on the ‘boring’ list / From William Maunder Taylor

Zurich revels in a distinguished history / From Dr Tony Woolfson

Swiss can cross border for chaos and incompetence / From Bruce Mathers

The timely contribution of the German Schwarzwald / From Christel Gerrard

Don’t dismiss Cape Town for South Africa’s failings / From ADH Leishman

Exciting Dutch city should be on the ‘happy’ list / From Marianne Pitts

Allow me to name a few Swiss contributions / From Robert Carl Zimmermann

How Greene set Book of Revelation in Switzerland / From Simon Crosby

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