Why are Nordic people so happy?

The five Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland) are consistently at or near the top of happiness studies. Why is this? The 2020 World Happiness Report suggests that the reasons include:

  • High sense of autonomy and freedom
  • High levels of social trust towards each other
  • Reliable and extensive welfare benefits
  • Well-functioning democracy and state institutions

It suggests that the following myths have little relevance to Nordic happiness:

  • Small population
  • Homogenous population
  • Cold weather
  • Suicide rates

Most of the factors are highly correlated with each other and often also mutually reinforcing, making it hard to disentangle cause from effect, but here are some overview points.

High sense of autonomy and freedom

Using World Values Survey data from 1981 to 2007, Inglehart et al. showed that rises in national levels of sense of free choice were associated with similar rises in national levels of subjective well-being, with change in free choice explaining about 30% of the change over time.

High levels of social trust towards each other

Helliwell et al. show using European Social Survey data that changes in social trust are linked to significant changes in national levels of subjective well-being. High levels of social trust also seem to make people’s well-being more resilient to various national crises.

Reliable and extensive welfare benefits

Using Gallup World Poll data, Oishi et al. demonstrate that the positive link between progressive taxation and global life evaluation is fully mediated by citizens’ satisfaction with public and common goods such as health care, education, and public transportation that the progressive taxation helps to fund.

Well-functioning democracy and state institutions

Helliwell et al. examined changes in government quality in 157 countries over the years 2005-2012, finding that improvements in quality tend to lead to improvements in well-being. Moreover, as regards changes in well-being, changes in government quality explained as much as changes in GDP.

Small population

Research has not found a relationship, either negative or positive, between the size of a country’s population and life satisfaction.

Homogenous population

The ratio of immigrants within a country has no effect on the average level of happiness of those locally born, with the ten happiest countries having foreign-born population shares averaging 17.2 %, about twice as much as the world average. Also, immigrants within a country tend to be about as happy as people born locally.

Cold weather

People in the tropics are found to be happier during winter but less happy during spring, as compared to people in more temperate zones. Average weather is something people adapt to and thus typically doesn’t much affect the life satisfaction of those used to a given weather.

Suicide rates

Nordic countries, especially Finland, used to have relatively high suicide rates in the 1970s and 1980s, but these rates have declined sharply since those days, and nowadays the reported suicide rates in the Nordic countries are close to the European average, and are also similar to rates in France, Germany, and the United States.

You can read more detail on all of these issues in this chapter from the 2020 World Happiness Report, written by

  • Frank Martela, Aalto University, Finland
  • Bent Greve, Roskilde University, Denmark
  • Bo Rothstein, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
  • Juho Saari, University of Tampere, Finland

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