The Grim Secret of Nordic Happiness
Drinking or not, Nordic countries have been topping the world’s happiest countries ratings for long now. And several studies have tried to explain this, usually attributing it to the welfare state with universal and free access to world class healthcare, education and housing, generous parental leaves, long paid vacations and so on. But the author of this article, a Finn tries to see if there’s another explanation.
First, he cites the Nordic people’s grim behaviour conflicting with their happiness ratings.
“Finland hasn’t always had such a blissed out international reputation. In 1993, when I was living in New York and still fresh off the boat, 60 Minutes featured a segment on Finland, which opened with this description of Helsinki pedestrians going about their business: “This is not a state of national mourning in Finland, these are Finns in their natural state; brooding and private; grimly in touch with no one but themselves; the shyest people on earth. Depressed and proud of it.” As far as facial expressions of the Finnish people, not much has changed since then. We are still just as reserved and melancholy as before. If happiness were measured in smiles, Finnish people would be among the most miserable in the world.”
And then explains the survey that underpins the World Happiness Report that rates these countries as the happiest in the first place:
“As it turns out, the World Happiness Report—the annual study responsible for these rankings—does not pay any attention to smiles, laughter, or other outward expressions of joy. Instead, the report relies on Gallup polls, which ask respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero to 10. The top rung (10) represents the best possible life for you, while the bottom rung (zero) represents the worst. The survey participants are then instructed to report the number that corresponds to the rung on which they are currently standing. In other words, you are deemed happy if your actual life circumstances approximate your highest expectations. No need to clap your hands or stomp your feet.
Given this emotionless definition of happiness, it is not so surprising why my compatriots score high on what should be described as average life evaluations.”
He suggests it could in fact be the Nordic people’s modest expectations from life:
“…We should not ignore expectations, the other aspect of the formula used in the World Happiness Report. Consistent with their Lutheran heritage, the Nordic countries are united in their embrace of curbed aspirations for the best possible life. This mentality is famously captured in the Law of Jante—a set of commandments believed to capture something essential about the Nordic disposition to personal success: “You’re not to think you are anything special; you’re not to imagine yourself better than we are; you’re not to think you are good at anything,” and so on. The Nordic ethos stands in particularly stark contrast to the American culture characterized by “extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success,” as observed by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1930s.
The Nordic countries provide decent lives for their citizens and prevent them from experiencing sustained periods of material hardship. Moreover, they embrace a cultural orientation that sets realistic limits to one’s expectations for a good life. In these societies, the imaginary 10-step ladder is not so tall, the first rung is pretty high up, and the distance between the steps is relatively short. People are socialized to believe that that what they have is as good as it gets—or close enough. This mindset explains why Finns are the happiest people in the world despite living in small apartments, earning modest incomes—with even more limited purchasing power thanks to high prices and taxes—and, unlike Iceland, having never even made it to the World Cup!”