Scandinavia, home of pickled herring, endless winter and rain. This is apparently the happiest place on earth. Between 2013 and 2017, the world happiness report ranked Denmark as the happiest nation on the planet. In the 2018 report, Finland overtook it. Denmark drop to third place, and Norway took the second spot.
The countries that have consistently topped the charts in these surveys, haven’t changed. The Scandinavian or more aptly, Nordic nations: Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, are consistently at the top of the charts year on year. Except for Sweden, which has remained slightly lower.
Over surveys conducted over 20 years have found the same thing. That the Vikings at the top of Europe are happier than Lhari, or, should I say Olaf. And when one examines Nordic life and customs objectively, it’s easy to see why. They enjoy one of the best work/life balances of any nation.
Scandinavian way of living
Average hours worked per week are between 35 to 40. In Denmark, most jobs permit employees to work at home at least one day per week. Their work hours are usually flexible too. If a Danish person wants to leave work early on a Friday, to go out drinking with friends. They straight up tell their boss:
I would like to leave work at 3 p.m. because I’m going out with friends this evening.
Whereas in the UK or US, we might make up some superficial lies. Such as I have a dentist appointment.
Here lies another reason why Scandinavians may be so happy: they trust each other. The world happiness report uses different metrics to measure happiness such as social security, job satisfaction, health, freedom, generosity of a nation of citizens and how much they trust one another. Being able to trust your neighbors and strangers leads to a happier existence. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway all ranked in the top 10 for trust alone. And it’s easy to see that as Nords leave their doors unlocked more often than in other places. They report feeling comfortable to leave their coat or backpack, or even their baby, unattended in a coffee shop when popping to the toilet.
I dare you to try that in New York or London and see if your belongings are there when you get back. Then there’s social security. A big reason why the Nordic realms consistently top the happiness charts. There’s no doubt that they enjoy some of the best social services in the world. The OECD list some, although not all nordic countries in the top 10 for health care, environment and safety. All products of their heavy welfare states.
But my gosh do they pay for it. They have some of the highest personal income tax rates in the developed world. Danes pay 56 percent to the taxman. But really it’s 60 percent, when adding in all the little extras like property tax. The Finnish, the country currently ranked as the happiest, pay 51% tax. But what is astonishing is how happy Scandinavians are about paying so much.
When asked, 9 out of 10 Danes say they are content giving 60 percent of their money to the government.
It’s all very well having great public services and feeling safe in your own country. But does that really equate to happiness? It’s odd to think of Finland holding the title of the happiest nation. I mean, when is the last time you heard someone say: this year honey, I think we should holiday in Helsinki. Or, perhaps Jutland. No. People usually opt for destinations such as France or Italy instead. Even though neither of those country ranked high for happiness. Parisians have probably expectorating people’s coffees and tourists would still flock there in their Millions.
Finland is a hostile environment. The temperature in Helsinki is almost always below zero throughout the winter, and it is usually buried under a blanket of snow. A quarter of Finland’s land is within the Arctic Circle, and therefore it can be dark all day long for 50 consecutive days throughout the year. Most of the country spends half the year in darkness and a majority of the day Anyway. As the sun sets in the early afternoon, throughout the winter as its perishing cold and dark for half the year, it’s no wonder that the Finnish are rather dour people.
It is not common that Finns are described as exuberant and bubbly. They are friendly once you get to know them, don’t get me wrong. They just don’t go about their day showing it, usually the opposite. In fact, they have a national word for their shy Jutland. Sisu, but then it’s no wonder when your city is a black-and-gray refrigerator. Doesn’t quite sound like living conditions that scream happy to me, and the terrible metric rather reflects that, their suicide rate.
Finland has a high suicide rate. It’s not the highest in the world, as some people have been led to believe. In fact, it’s not even in the top 10. It currently ranks number 32. Just above the United States with 13.8 suicides per 100,000 people as of 2016. But surely the reported happiest nation in the world, shouldn’t be near the top end of the scale.
Furthermore, there’s a macabre underlying trend. The data shows that the higher country is ranked on a variety of happiness indexes. The higher its suicide rate is, there seems to be a dichotomous positive correlation between perceived happiness and wanting to take one’s own life. Which for obvious reasons, makes very little sense. So, perhaps there’s something else going on in Denmark and Finland. Which could throw a shade of doubt on the results of happiness surveys. And there could be an aspect of Nordic and especially Danish and Norwegian culture that outright rigs the results so that they will always come on top, no matter what.
What the first issue is, how does one measure happiness? Happiness is not absolute, and therefor it’s really difficult to quantify with statistics. Happiness is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of positive emotions, such as joy, contentment, well-being, success and safety. If we were to hand out an award for the people who seem the happiest on the surface, we would surely give it to a South American country.
The Gallup emotions report ranks countries based on the negativity or positivity of their emotions. Such as how often they cry, frown, smile and laugh. The results, the smiliest, most positive nation in the world, is Paraguay. Every year Latin American countries dominated this poll. Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras – are all consistent in the top ten. Also, every year Canada ranks highly somewhere amongst the Latin countries. But that’s no surprise. It seems Canadians really do live up to their reputation. But, as we all know, there’s a lot more to happiness than positive emotions, as Maslow illustrated in his hierarchy of needs.
There are other requisites. Humans need to feel happy. Such as safety, friendship, food and housing. It’s on these other metrics, on which the South American nations fall down. They may be smiley, but they have the highest homicide rates in the world. Whereas the Nordic countries host some of the wealthiest citizens in the world, and are some of the safest and most secure places to live. Especially in Norway, with an average GDP per capital of over $70,000, mostly because of its oil wealth. Off the back of the immense wealth that the Nordic region has been able to generate over the past few decades, they have all been able to fund the world’s most prolific social welfare systems.
Every need is taken care of so much so in fact that the Scandinavians are statistically some of the worst savers in the world. Because there is an inbuilt assumption that the state will take care of that. The heavy welfare providing governments in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden means that the people are content. But that is precisely the issue that fools happiness surveys into a false sense of Nordic security. Scandinavians are happy about just being content.
Scandinavians are the kings of self-effacement. It’s a huge social faux pas in Nordic countries to brag about your income or material possessions. It is considered wrong to even desire material possessions, even if one can afford them and most nords definitely can. Scandinavians all take part in a huge daily game of who can lift the most frugally, googly and who can pay the most taks.
Yanteloven or “the law of Jante”
You see Scandinavians live by a set of strict on spoken laws. They aren’t real laws, but a set of social “etiquette rules” come ideology by which almost every Nord lives. They call it Yanteloven. It originates from Norway, but it’s, followed by all the Nordic countries. Yanteloven or “the law of Jante” dictates that one should put society before their own personal needs and desires. One should never boast about their accomplishments or material possessions, and one must never be jealous of another.
In fact, there are actually 10 written and widely disseminated commandments of Yanteloven, including: you’re not to think you are anything special and, you’re not to think you are good at anything.
To put it simply, one should be content with what they have and nothing more. That is the law of Jante. It’s more than just a national stereotype, like the British love queueing. Yanteloven is an ideology that has become indoctrinated into the scandi youth and thus is firmly woven into the fabric of Nordic society.
Yanteloven is pretty much the polar opposite of the individualist way we live in the US, UK and most other Western capitalist societies. Where we always desire bigger houses and more premium cars than our neighbours. Contrary to popular belief, all the Scandinavian countries are not socialist. They are unarguably free-market capitalist societies. But they are underpinned by a collectivist mentality. Neither of these contradictory ways of living is necessarily any better than they offer.
There are pros and cons of living within both of these ideological frameworks. They are just different, and this huge culture gap between the US and Scandinavia also goes a long way to explain why a scandi economic model could never work in the US, but that’s a topic for another time.
It’s exactly this difference, however, that explains why the Nordic countries are consistently reported as the happiest. Because Scandinavians are on the whole extremely content and they don’t desire much. Their bar for happiness is far lower than over ethnic groups. And in a way, that’s a really nice thing. But it also explains how a far higher percentage of Nordic folk may report being happy compared to those in other countries.
Jante law also affects many other criteria by which we rate our personal satisfaction. Take housing. Yanteloven dictates that a Norwegian shouldn’t desire a larger house than their peers. So, when our stay is bound to say that they are satisfied with their modest household. Whereas, an American living in an identical house to the Norwegian may deem that house far too small or inadequate. Thus have a lower level of life satisfaction. Because Americans are brought up to believe in the American Dream, practically the opposite of Yanteloven, which suppresses the potential greatness of an individual.
Therefore, all the surveys that purportedly place the Scandinavian countries at the top of the happiness lead tables, may have overlooked the fact that Scandinavian culture favors selfless contentedness, over selfish and hedonistic happiness. I may not have met every Dane and Finn in the world, but in my experience, they are no friendlier or happier than the British or Americans. They’re, simply more content with less. And that’s, absolutely fine. Furthermore, there is a self-perpetuating trend for Danes and Finn’s to report greater levels of happiness than they actually feel.
The Danes, in particular, are extremely patriotic people, good on them. They have a lot to be proud of. But as part of their patriotism, Danes are now well aware of their reputation as one of the happiest nations in the world. This causes Danes to report higher satisfaction scores than they may otherwise.
Also, it’s in the very nature of Nordic culture, to not admit when one is unhappy. After all, that would be putting one’s own needs before the collective mass. Scandinavians are more likely to report happiness, even if they are unhappy due to the social conditioning of their own culture. The Sisu mentality in Finland I wrote about earlier has a lot to do with this as well, and the Nordic Happiness bubble may be coming to an end.
Mental health issues are on a steep rise across the region. Norway has seen a 40% increase in reported mental health issues in young people over a five-year period. And over recent years, vastly increased immigration into the region is threatening the previously high ethnic and cultural homogeneity, of all the Nordic countries. After all, it is this shared culture that provides these countries with their closed social bonds, etiquette and high levels of trust in their communities.
All these attributes create happy communities. I wrote those values by introducing other cultures, and we may start to see a shift in the satisfaction levels of the Nordic people.
Research has shown that ethnic minorities living in Denmark and Sweden are the least happy people in the country. And I’m not exclusively talking about eastern immigrants. Those statistics include white expats. Because they don’t share the same culture. They don’t believe in Yanteloven or fully understand the weird pleasure of hygge.
The Scandinavian countries want to think of themselves as the most inclusive in the world. But they have such strong cultures, that truth is: wide-scale inclusion of others may never be possible without sacrificing the very culture that makes them who they are and makes them so happy.
Whilst it’s interesting to analyze. Ultimately, we shouldn’t judge the happiness of nations based on surveys and various data points, because happiness means something entirely different to everyone.
The best way to find out if a nation is full of happy people is by visiting and spending time of those people. Even then, you may not get their unique breed of happiness because you’re simply unable to understand their bizarre culture and customs. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t happy. The world is too diverse to say that any one country has a monopoly on happiness. Thanks for reading till now.