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Happiness - what’s the Nordics’ secret sauce?

Happiness - what’s the Nordics’ secret sauce?

20 Mar 2020

Cast your mind back to April 2012 - it marked the wettest April on record, a century since the Titanic sank, and the debut of the World Happiness Index.
 
The World Happiness Index is a United Nations initiative that blends people’s self-reported happiness with their countries’ social, health and economic wellbeing scores.
 
Voila, the Index captures nations’ happiness and then lists countries in a football-style league table. And like a football league table, certainly an English or Scottish one, only a small handful of teams ever appear in the top tier.
 

The Nordic way

For a century prior to 2012, international policymakers had always looked north to see high-functioning nations in action.
 
Able to strike a cunning balance between ruthless capitalism and generous welfare, the Nordics (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland) have long been seen as model systems, where high taxes fund well-oiled public services and progressive, inclusive social policy.
 
So sure enough, it was little surprise when the World Happiness Index threw four of the five Nordic nations (no Iceland) into the inaugural Top 10, with Denmark, Finland and Norway occupying the top spots.
 
2012
 
1.      Denmark
2.      Finland
3.      Norway
4.      Netherlands
5.      Canada
6.      Switzerland
7.      Sweden 
8.      New Zealand
9.      Australia
10.    Ireland
 
They’ve been Top 10s ever since. Meanwhile, Iceland has returned to financial strength (following the 2008 crisis) and joined its friends at the party.

Every year since 2014 we’ve seen a Nordic clean sweep, including 2019 when Finland won happiest nation for the second year running.
 
2019
 
1.      Finland
2.      Denmark 
3.      Norway 
4.      Iceland 
5.      Netherlands 
6.      Switzerland 
7.      Sweden  
8.      New Zealand           
9.      Canada 
10.    Austria
 
 

What is it about the Nordics?

As naturally stunning as the Norwegian Fjords or Iceland’s geysers are; as opulent as Copenhagen is and as picturesque as Stockholm or Helsinki are, none of them fit anyone’s vision of paradise. There’s no coconuts or palm trees for a start, there’s long winters, months of darkness and year-round rain. 
 
Nonetheless, one utopian formula that Nordic nations have captured is togetherness.
 
Across all five Nordic nations, togetherness is a matter of public policy. The Nordic compass seems to be permanently fixed on family as the ultimate guiding light. 

The time off work that’s allowed and even encouraged by Nordic governments is absurd by American or even British standards. The average Nordic worker gets double the holiday allocation of the average American worker and, unlike other cultures, it’s a massive social faux pas if Nordic workers don’t use every last one of their vacation days.

New parents are given hugely generous paid parental leave plus flexible working options for the duration of a child’s life. That goes for dads as well as mums.

In the work-life balance stakes, the Nordics are the most life-heavy nations of the developed world. Combine all this with welfare frameworks that make ‘losing everything’ a pretty absurd concept, and we start to understand how Nordic families are nurtured and protected by law. And by social convention.
 

Hygge and other buzzwords

Hygge was/ is the Scandi craze that shot up in popularity a handful of years ago. In essence, Hygge captures being warm, comfortable and relaxed among the people you love.
 
The Hygge movement inspired dozens of best-selling books and had the English-speaking world obsessed, for a time, with wooden furniture, candles and hot chocolate.
 
But Hygge is just one kitschy term that captures the Nordic way. Others include Jantelagan, or the Law of Jante, which is about keeping self-promotion and boastfulness to a minimum for the sake of social cohesion. There’s also big emphasis on being grateful for what you have versus pining for what you don’t.
 
A related word is Lagom, which loosely translates into just the right amount. In other words, you don’t need more than you have. This concept serves to limit overindulgence and keep expectations in check.
 

The Nordics aren’t perfect, right?

 
Of course not. As some of the richest nations on earth (all Nordic nations feature in the IMF’s Top 15 countries by wealth per capita), there’s an exorbitantly high cost-of-living. Indeed Norway, Iceland and Denmark are three of the world’s ten most expensive places to live - so swathes of the population routinely feel priced out.
 
Inequality in Sweden has, since the 1980s, risen faster than any other OECD country and Denmark and Finland aren’t far behind. With that, social tensions bubble away, especially when it comes to policies on welfare, tax and immigration.
 
During the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, which all-but-bankrupted Iceland, the Nordic nations saw rampant disillusionment, especially in youngsters. Notably, Sweden and Denmark struggled as graduates and school leavers, facing an uncertain future, increasingly escaped into drugs, alcohol and antisocial behaviour.
 
In fact, an entirely different 2012 - 2016 investigation into happiness found that disproportionate numbers of young people in the Nordics were struggling.
 
In Denmark, 18.3% of people aged 16 to 24 said they suffered from poor mental health - with the number rising to 23.8% for women in that age bracket. From 2012 - 2016, Norway saw a 40% increase in young people seeking help for mental health difficulties.
 
In 2016, Finland (poised to be crowned happiest nation) reported that suicides accounted for one third of deaths in the 16-24 age bracket. In fact, Finland is ranked 32nd highest in the global suicide league table, sandwiched between Sri Lanka and Eritrea. The UK was 109th.
 

How does that square in the happiest country on earth?

Maybe it doesn’t. There’s much debate around the methodology of the World Happiness Index. Should suicide rates have more weight, the Top 10 might look entirely different.
 
There are philosophical questions around what happiness actually is and if it can ever be scientifically measured. For context, a competing 2012 happiness survey de-emphasised the role of money and income and calculated the top three happiest nations as Panama, Paraguay and El Salvador.
 
Finns themselves will readily admit that they (at least outwardly) are not a happy people. As we read earlier, there’s a cultural tendency in Scandinavia to look to the good and be grateful - so perhaps Nordic citizens’ self-reported happiness is overstated.
 

International Day of Happiness

Let’s face it, this debate isn’t making us any happier.
 
The fact is that the World Happiness Index has been using the same variables since 2012. And metrics have always thrown out the Nordics – as well as Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, Austria and Switzerland – as the happiest countries around.
 
Even before the First World War, nations looked to the Nordics for inspiration on social policy. Scores of books and academic papers have been published in an effort to understand the essence of the Nordics; to pin-down their secret sauce.
 
Sure, there are detractors, but since the history of time no country system has worked 100% perfectly for 100% of the population. The Nordics have their problems too, but one thing they have consistently done well for a century or more is to build social and economic frameworks that reinforce interpersonal connections.
 
And togetherness equals happiness. That’s the theme of this year’s International Day of Happiness anyway.
 
March the 20th is not only the day that the 2020 World Happiness Index/ Report drops but a heavyweight awareness day among all other silly, slapstick, and made-up-for-PR days.
 
Very unfortunately, the International Day of Happiness overlaps with National Bed Month and falls two days after Brake Zebra’s Beep Beep Day, whatever that is.
 

Happier Together

As said, the theme of this year’s International Day of Happiness is Happier Together. And as we’ve read that’s one thing the Nordics aim to foster above all else.  
 
The notion that we need to feel connected to be happy isn’t lost on the UK. Every year for the last three, our LifeSearch Health, Wealth & Happiness Report has found that spending time with friends and family is the one thing that contributes most to Brits’ happiness.
 
Regardless of age, stage, gender or background, Spending time with friends and family (55%) is our highest-rated source of happiness and far outweighs anything financial, building up savings or investments (6%) for example. Or spending money (5%), or my job (5%).
 
Britain knows that happiness is friends and family. Maybe our social systems or work norms don’t point towards that goal as effectively as other nations, but in our hearts we get it.
 
Recent events have prised the UK apart more than ever before and it’s doubtful that Britain will trouble the top tier of the 2020 World Happiness Index. In years past we’ve only landed as high as the Top 30; Top 20 if we’re lucky.
 
But we know it to be true that happiness is other people. We mightn’t have Hygge, Jante or Lagom. But maybe in 2020 we can realise what we do have: friends and family. Maybe we too can be happier together …

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