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What Makes Happiness Thrive in Nordic Countries?

By Medina Syla


20 May 2024

happiness in Nordic countries

©️ Suriyawut Suriya / Freepik

For several years now, Nordic countries have topped the global happiness charts. In the World Happiness Report, Finland has consistently ranked first for the past five years, with Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway frequently joining Finland in the top ten.

This consistent success has intrigued people worldwide, leading to the question: what makes the Nordic countries so happy? Let’s see below where the answer lies!

happiness in Nordic countries
©️ artcookstudio / Freepik

Key Factors Behind Nordic Happiness

1. Trust and Social Cohesion

  • High Levels of Trust: Trust is one of the defining characteristics of the Nordic countries. People trust one another, their governments, and public institutions, creating a supportive social environment. For instance, an experiment by Reader’s Digest showed that Helsinki had the highest rate of returned lost wallets in the world.
  • Shared History and Understanding: The historical focus on family-driven agriculture rather than corporate-owned farms has led to a sense of mutual understanding among citizens. Class divisions are less pronounced compared to other capitalist societies, resulting in a culture of social cohesion.
  • Handling Crises Together: Research indicates that trust is crucial in helping nations rebound from crises. In Nordic countries, citizens rally together in the face of disasters like economic downturns because they believe in collective action.

2. Quality Public Services

  • Efficient Governance: The Nordic model is characterized by governments that deliver high-quality services efficiently. Public services include accessible healthcare, education, unemployment benefits, and generous parental leave.
  • Effective Use of Resources: Despite offering comprehensive services, Nordic governments spend a smaller proportion of their GDP on these services compared to other nations, like the United States. For example, the Swedish government controls a strict budget surplus of 1% across economic cycles to ensure sustainable government spending.
  • Flexicurity: The Danish concept of “flexicurity” allows firms to fire workers easily while ensuring workers receive an adequate notice period and unemployment benefits to secure new employment. This balance between flexibility and security provides economic stability.

3. Equality and Fairness

  • Low-Income Inequality: The Gini coefficient in Nordic countries ranges between 0.244 and 0.300, indicating relatively high levels of economic equality. This fairness leads to high social mobility and the perception that hard work is rewarded.
  • Balancing Productivity and Equality: Critics argue that high equality might reduce productivity, but the sense of fairness and security it fosters is vital for mental well-being and life satisfaction.

4. Their Cultural Philosophy and Lifestyle

  • Friluftsliv and Simple Living: The Nordic concept of “friluftsliv,” or an outdoor lifestyle, encourages simple living in nature. Whether it’s hiking with family, skiing with friends, or ice fishing with grandparents, this connection to nature enhances mental well-being.
  • Janteloven and Contentment: “Janteloven,” a set of societal norms, discourages individualism and personal success. It encourages people to appreciate a comfortable, modest life rather than striving for unattainable goals.
  • Acceptance of Melancholy: Despite their high rankings in happiness, Nordic countries have a reputation for being somewhat melancholic. Citizens understand that happiness isn’t about constant positivity but involves being content with a secure and balanced life.

Challenges Ahead: Can Nordic Countries Stay Happy?

1. Mental Health Concerns

  • High Suicide Rates: Critics often point to high suicide rates in Nordic countries, particularly among Finnish men. However, these rates have significantly declined since the 1990s due to proactive mental health initiatives.
  • Cultural Factors: Studies suggest that cultural factors, such as low religious affiliation and high divorce rates, contribute to higher suicide rates in the region.

2. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Sustainability of Welfare Models: The pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have raised concerns about the sustainability of the generous Nordic welfare models. Reduced government spending or shifting resources to inflation control could impact citizens’ expectations.
  • Trust Remains Key: Despite these challenges, trust remains crucial. Citizens’ faith in government institutions to deliver effective policies is expected to help Nordic nations adapt and thrive post-pandemic.

3. Criticism of the Happiness Rankings

  • Are the Rankings Accurate? Some residents, like Helsinki-based artistic director Juha Rouhikoski, believe the rankings are inaccurate. He argues that Finns aren’t necessarily “happy,” but rather “content.” This sentiment reflects a difference in interpretation of happiness in the Nordic context.
  • People living farther south might find it hard to believe that anyone can be happy in regions with so little daylight during winter. However, Finns embrace the season with enthusiasm, making the most of it with the help of the country’s abundant saunas.

Nordic countries have historically been associated with high suicide rates. For instance, in 1990, Finland’s suicide rate was so high that the country implemented the world’s first suicide prevention strategy. Although trends have significantly improved, Finland still ranks fourth in youth suicide rates.7

Exploring the Myths

happiness in Nordic countries
©️ therato / Freepik

1. It’s Not Just About Money

  • Wealth vs. Happiness: While Nordic countries are relatively wealthy, not all rich nations are as happy. Singapore and Saudi Arabia, for instance, rank much lower despite their high GDPs. The real differentiator is how this wealth is distributed and utilized.
  • Progressive Taxation: Progressive taxation, which increases with income, funds public services like healthcare, education, and transportation, reducing inequality and increasing trust in government institutions.

2. It’s Not Just Genetics

  • Genetic Influence on Happiness: While genetics do influence happiness, environmental factors play a much larger role. The World Happiness Report estimates that only 30-40% of happiness can be attributed to genetics, while 60-70% is influenced by societal conditions.
  • Environmental Factors: High trust, equality, and quality of public services significantly contribute to the overall happiness in Nordic societies.

3. Homogeneity and Population Size

  • Not Just Homogenous: While the Nordic countries are relatively small, they are not homogenous. About 8% of the population in Finland and Denmark is foreign-born, similar to France. Furthermore, the share of immigrants has no significant effect on the happiness of locally-born citizens.
  • Population Size and Happiness: The World Happiness Report found no direct correlation between population size and happiness. What matters more is trust, equality, and institutional quality.

What is There to Learn From The Nordic Countries’ Happiness?

  1. Learn from the Nordics: While the Nordic model may not be perfectly suitable for other nations, lessons in trust-building, effective governance, and equality are universally valuable.
  2. Foster Trust and Cooperation: Building trust among citizens and within institutions can significantly improve societal resilience and overall well-being.
  3. Promote Simple Living: Embracing outdoor activities and appreciating simple pleasures can enhance mental health and life satisfaction.

happiness in Nordic countries
©️ Suriyawut Suriya / Freepik

In summary, the happiness of Nordic countries isn’t just about wealth or homogeneity. It stems from a combination of trust, effective public services, equality, and a unique cultural mindset that values simple living and contentment over relentless ambition. While the sustainability of the Nordic model is occasionally questioned, the lessons it offers in social cohesion, governance, and fairness can help inform strategies for improving well-being around the world.

You might also like to read: These Are the World’s Happiest Countries In 2024

Medina Syla

I couldn't help but wonder...