Scandinavian countries top happiness chart: What’s their secret?
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
For about six months of the year, Finland has only a few hours of light per day and endures temperatures well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. It also has one of the world’s highest tax rates.
Nonetheless, Finns are the happiest people in the world according to the 2018 United Nations World Happiness Report — and their Nordic neighbors aren’t far behind in the rankings.
The list ranks 156 countries for contentment based on GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust (absence of corruption). The report has been dominated by the five Scandinavian nations since its inception in 2012.
The top 10 for 2018 are, in order, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.
By contrast, the United States — a country accustomed to being the best in the world at nearly everything, and whose founding promise is the individual pursuit of happiness — is in a period of happiness slippage, fading from third place to 18th in the last two years.
Also notably well down the list as well are a number of highly developed, culturally vibrant G20 nations, including France (23), Italy (47), Japan (54), South Korea (57), Russia (59) and China (86).
The tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, so often cited as the world’s happiest country, didn’t score well in the UN study, landing in 84th place. Government officials blame "Western prejudice in the data collection and analysis" for the poor showing. The dubious distinction of finishing last (156) in the study goes to the African nation of Burundi.
All of this raises an obvious question: What exactly does Scandinavia do differently that makes its citizens so happy?
Vetting the UN report is not an easy task. It is a nightmarish statistical study that only a social scientist could love.
In spite of its mind-numbing nature, we’ve given the report a thorough reading and, after gathering comments from its editors and others, we think we’ve come up with some tenable answers.
Canadian economist and editor of the World Happiness Report, Dr. John Helliwell, is quick to quash notions that Northern Europe’s frigid climate, long, dark winters and high taxes have a significantly negative influence on residents’ perceived well-being.
"There is a view suggesting that historically communities that lived in harsher weather were brought together by greater mutual support," says Helliwell. "You see this with farming communities as well, who will get together to pull a barn roof up. They don’t ask about who’s paying what. So the colder climate of the Scandinavian countries appears to actually make social support easier."
Helliwell concedes that residents of the region do pay high taxes (an average marginal rate of about 50.5 percent compared to the U.S.’ 27.4 percent) but stresses that taxes "help fund a truly comprehensive set of social support programs" — including free or very low cost education and healthcare, child daycare, maternity/paternity leave and elder care.
While it might seem incredulous to foreign observers, most Scandinavians are quite content with their high tax rates. There’s good reason for such bliss.
They can afford it — all five Nordic nations rank among the world’s top 15 countries in GDP per capita – and they get a bounty of benefits from their taxes.
Although the region scores well on all six measures of contentment, social support — available to nearly everyone, not just those in need — ranks as the number one factor.
"Scandinavian countries are very big on social support," notes Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, one of the study’s associate editors. "This extends from neighborly support among citizens to state programs that support the well-being of the entire society."
Another thing Scandinavians often cite as an important source of their happiness is a dedication to actually enjoying their lives. The time off work that business and government allows its citizens — three to five weeks of vacation and anywhere from six months to more than a year of paid maternity or paternity leave — seems absurd by American and Asian standards, but a work-life balance skewed strongly toward life is central to the Nordic nirvana.
De Neve also contends that job security and workplace conditions can have a dramatic impact on levels of happiness.
"Employees become unhappy in a workplace where there’s a culture of easily hiring and easily firing," he says, suggesting that the U.S. and other nations might need to consider more comprehensive unemployment and re-employment programs, like those of the Scandinavian nations, if they want to climb the ranks of the happiness report.
Scandinavian countries offer a variety of services for the unemployed and underemployed. These include generous unemployment insurance and child support programs that are usually integrated and tailored to the individual. Immigrants are offered help with language skills and those out of work can join work experience programs, to avoid, as Helliwell puts it, "the scarring of long term unemployment."
While high income, strong social support and long vacations are easy to quantify, other elements of the happiness equation are more suggestive than definitive.
Take, for example, the Scandinavian obsession with getting outdoors. Given the region’s stunning natural beauty — stretching from the geothermal wonders of Iceland to the awe-inspiring mountains and fjords of Norway to the rushing rivers and reindeer-dotted tundra of Swedish Lapland — it’s easy to understand why being in the great outdoors is a national pastime in these Nordic lands.
"Now that I live in New York City," says Anna Vuonia, a consular officer from Helsinki, "I realize that Finns do spend a great deal more time outdoors and in nature than Americans. Even in winter we always find ways to go hiking or walking. Here, I’m struggling to find time to do that."
It is difficult to measure the extent to which an active outdoor lifestyle promotes happiness — so the premise is somewhat suggestive. But if one were to embrace the possibility that such a lifestyle enhances longevity, the World Health Organization’s Life Expectancy Report could shed some definitive light on the question.
And it appears to do just that. All five Scandinavian countries rank among the report’s top 20 — with life expectancies of 80+ years – compared to the global average of 72 years.
Who’s to argue that the prospect of living a long, healthy life might make everyone a little happier?
Analyzing the flip side of the report provides some telling evidence as to why certain countries — including the U.S. and the half-dozen other prosperous and powerful nations referenced earlier — aren’t as happy as it seems they should be.
Responses from American participants in the study reveal that trust in government, the media and other institutions has declined. Many feel the system is rigged in favor of big banks and corporations, the "coastal elite," or one political party or the other.
Work, and the ceaseless quest for job security, advancement and material wealth dominate most Americans’ lives, leaving less time for family, friends and community. The availability and high cost of health insurance and medical care is a major concern to nearly half of all Americans.
More than 44 million college and university grads are struggling to pay back $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. Loneliness is epidemic, especially among seniors, and so is reliance on addictive drugs and alcohol.
In Asia, one of the main factors impeding happiness is the high degree of competitiveness in both school and workplace, creating acute levels of stress among students and employees as they strive for success. The report also indicates that corruption, both in government and business, has eroded the public’s trust in those institutions, further driving down scores.
Commenting on the latest World Happiness Report, William Falk, editor of The Week magazine, notes that the Scandinavian nations are "not without problems, but researchers say what sets the happier nations apart is the premium their cultures place on time spent in nature, and in harmonious, intimate contact with friends and family. The Danes even have a word, ‘hygge,’ that describes these cozy, high-quality social interactions."
Falk concludes, "If there is a suggestion we can collectively and personally take from the happiness rankings, it’s this: richness comes from human connection. GDP matters less than hygge."
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