What’s the secret behind Nordic happiness?


What’s the secret behind Nordic happiness?

You might have come across articles investigating the mysterious formula for the high level of happiness that Nordic citizens are – clearly – experiencing. The number of articles laying out insider tips on ‘How to become as happy as a Nordic person’ have increased, and the reason for this ongoing search for happiness is probably as simple as the fact that happiness is one of the core indicators of general wellbeing. Some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals even aim to increase happiness. And in the search for inspiration, many have been looking to the Nordics – but is one definable secret really the cause of Nordic happiness? And if so, how easy would it be to implement it elsewhere?

Traced by:
Ida Lautrup Nysom

For the past eight years, a group of happiness experts has published the annual so-called World Happiness Report on the 20th of March – on the ‘International Day of Happiness’. The report is based on the level of happiness in 156 countries, meaning the citizens' satisfaction with the way their life is going. Time after time, the Nordic countries have turned up at the top of the list. 

Last year, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden all qualified for a spot in the top 7, in good company with some of their European neighbors, Switzerland and the Netherlands. And for nearly 100 years, policymakers and progressives have been casting a sidelong glance at the Nordic way – maybe with good reason?

"We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people," stated U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a Democratic presidential debate back in 2016. And historically, countries like the United States have been looking towards the Nordics for inspiration on how to create an egalitarian state with a robust social welfare policy – because, apparently, that could be leading to happy citizens. But did the Nordics really do anything specific to increase the happiness of the working people and the rest of the population, or is it merely deeply founded in the history and culture of these countries to have a high level of satisfaction with life in general?

Hygge, Sisu, parental leave, or…

When searching for an answer, there are different places to look; we might not find the answer in the long and cold Nordic winter, but would it be wrong to credit the Finnish concept of Sisu, or maybe the Danish term hygge? Several experts have made their guess on how to explain Nordic happiness, and one way is by looking at the framework surrounding them. These include well-functioning democracy, free education and healthcare, and a high priority of life balance. And parental leave the Nordic way, of course.

Perhaps, another reason can be found in… the Nordic weather – as silly as that sounds. Why? Because local communities in the Nordics have been brought closer together, securing social support, due to the lack of sunshine. Or, as put by the Canadian Economist and editor of the World Happiness Report, John Helliwell: 

But then what if we stopped looking for a reason why Nordic people are so ‘happy’? What if we stopped searching for what it is these countries do to ‘create’ happiness – and turned it completely upside down? 

The Nordic countries have been in the top 10 ever since we started measuring happiness this way. But what if what the region has had success with is, in fact, implementing a set of policies that decrease the number of people living lives of abject misery. Or put differently: The Nordics are good at minimizing unhappiness. And if we see it that way… maybe Nordic people are not even be that happy. They are just not unhappy…? 

Can you survive a crisis by means of… trust? 

According to the World Happiness Report, even though the Nordic region is collectively topping the list, "there seems to be no secret sauce specific to Nordic happiness that is unavailable to others. There is rather a more general recipe for creating delighted citizens". And ‘trust’ looks like a real keyword in this recipe: A high level of trust in other people, institutions, businesses, and the government is a general characteristic of the Nordic region. "High-trusting" societies, they’re called. 


Historically, trust has proven to be essential for a country in terms of securing a quick(er) rebound from a crisis – like the COVID-19 crisis. "As revealed by earlier studies of earthquakes, floods, storms, tsunamis, and even economic crisis, a high trust society quite naturally looks for and finds co-operative ways to work together to repair the damage and rebuild better lives," the editors of the World Happiness Report 2020 stated. So, the phenomenon of trust might turn out to be crucial in the fight for increasing the happiness of citizens worldwide in the years to come, post-COVID-19.

Credit: janiecbros

Is happiness here to stay?

Every year, on the occasion of the World Happiness Report, the Nordics have their high level of happiness pointed out. And even though it’s always nice to be in the top league, let’s bear in mind the difference in both culture and mindset of different nations. Let’s bear in mind that more than one Nordic person have – undoubtedly – said: “What? We’re not that happy! Or… is everyone here but me?” Some might even think of the yearly event as a competition where it is worth exaggerating your happiness a bit just to outpace your neighboring countries… who knows?

One thing is the measured and perceived level of happiness of a people. Another thing is how this is actually experienced in everyday life. A third thing is how this is actively taken into account in public policy objectives. And as of now, this is where the Nordics have to look across country borders for inspiration. For instance, in New Zealand's budget for May 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden decided to prioritize wellbeing over economic growth. 

As we all know, a lot in this world is temporary. Will the Nordic region be the happiest in 10 years? Will we change the way we perceive happiness and life satisfaction in general – and will that effect the results of future surveys? Time will show. 

We are curious to see what this year's report on happiness, published today, will show. Hopefully, it will lead to discussions on wellbeing and life quality, initiating an increase in happiness around the globe.