Decoding the Nordics' infrastructure of happiness

Public services and strong civic virtues make up infrastructure of happiness

1880753746 Rest, refresh: People enjoy drinks on the terrace of a cafe in Helsinki. Studies show “downtime” is not time wasted | Shutterstock

The ‘infrastructure of happiness’ is built on welfare ideals, what the Americans derisively call socialist or nanny states. The focus is on citizens’ wellbeing. In Finland, as in the other Nordic countries, the infrastructure includes democratic governance, well-functioning public services, human rights and free basic necessities. “Free education and health care, income security and pensions are guaranteed to everyone,” says Finnish diplomat Teemu Tanner. The five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) are in the top seven happiest countries in the world. The unhappiest people live in shattered nations―Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

The ‘infrastructure of happiness’ is anchored in civic virtues like honesty and equality. Says writer Merete Mazzarella, “Equality helps in societal happiness. When you see enormous difference in wealth, when you can’t make it no matter how hard you work, how can you be happy?” Equality is not a sentiment. It is law. Says teacher Katriina Apajalahti, “We have no poor, a few rich and no filthy-rich.” No Bezos and no beggars, but a support framework for all citizens.

A girl examines human anatomy. In Nordic schools, cooperation, not competition, is the ideal | Shutterstock A girl examines human anatomy. In Nordic schools, cooperation, not competition, is the ideal | Shutterstock

An American who loses her job must scramble to find a new one. A Norwegian gets a monthly dole of Rs3 lakh for two years, giving her time to find a new job. A not so well-off Indian breadwinner who gets cancer must sell his property. A Finn gets free treatment. Upon graduation, a British student has a degree, and debt. A Dane graduates with free, high-quality education and a secure job. Wellbeing depends on security replacing stress. Says cultural influencer Gunvor Kronman, “We are taken care of, we don’t feel abandoned.” Happiness is ephemeral, wellbeing is structural. Says Jeffrey D. Sachs, coauthor of the World Happiness Report, “In Nordic countries, people trust the government and the government delivers.”

Hobbies and leisure are also part of the infrastructure of happiness. Studies show “downtime” is not time wasted. It refreshes, improving and not decreasing productivity. Nordic people work the least. In Norway, offices close at 3pm in the summer, enabling citizens to hike in the mountains or swim in the fjord; in winter people can ski. In Japan, India and the US, working late is a badge of honour. For Nordics, it is a sign of inefficiency. They get five weeks of paid vacation, while 23 per cent of Americans do not get paid vacation and those who do mostly get two weeks. Says Laurie Santos, Yale professor and author of The Science of Well-Being: “Science shows having a little bit more time makes us happy.”

That happiness comes from this holistic infrastructure is proven by the Nordic countries topping not just the happiness rankings but various wellbeing metrics. The Nordic social democracies are the world’s most stable, prosperous, least corrupt, well-governed countries with high salaries and standard of living, longest paternity and maternity leaves, high employment rates, strong political, civic and press freedom. Accountability is high, with prime ministers savaged for what would be considered minor misdemeanours in most countries. Gender equality, social justice, work-life balance and human development scores are also the highest in the world. Says social scientist Roosa Tikkanen, “The government’s social spending is high so the citizens’ quality of life is good.”

Low crime rates mean high public safety and open societies. State buildings are not guarded. The new public library in Helsinki is the same height as the parliament building across the road. Tour guide Heidi Johansson said visiting Israelis were shocked, wondering how parliamentarians could be protected from snipers. Opposite the Helsinki presidential palace is a spa. Americans were amazed, saying, “If we got this close to the White House we would be shot.” An American anthropologist was stunned to see glass-encased emergency hammers in trains―“Can’t a crazy guy take this and kill other people?”

Trust is another civic virtue that binds Nordic societies. Citizens trust each other and the authorities. Says filmmaker Iiris Härmä, “Trust is an important part of our success. Welfare societies create trust.” In Nordic schools, cooperation, not competition, is the ideal. Politicians take public transport and mingle with people in the streets, forests and parks. Trust and high taxes go together. Says Apajalahti, “We pay our taxes happily because we get lifelong benefits in return. I can be sure I will get support when I need.”

People are willing to pay high taxes also because there is accountability and no corruption. Says Tanner: “Surveys show 96 per cent of Finns believe paying taxes is an important civic duty and that taxes are important for maintaining Finland’s welfare state.” Like all Nordics, Finland has a high track record of honesty. Says Apajalahti, “Honesty is in our Lutheran mothers’ milk.” People forget laptops and mobiles in cafes, but are confident of finding them later. Mazzarella explains, “It is an old tradition. You don’t take what is not yours.” When Sweden’s longest serving Prime Minister Tage Erlander died in 1981, his widow, Aina, went to his office to return pencils he had taken while he served.