What Nordic countries have done right

Happiness indices are taken as seriously as other metrics, says Finnish philosopher

52-Frank-Martela Frank Martela

What is striking from the Happiness Index is the consistent success of the Nordic countries. The five Nordic countries―Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland―are all in the top seven of the world. In fact, ever since the World Happiness Report was first published a decade ago, the Nordic countries have always been in the top 10. So, when searching for an explanation for Finland’s success, I would focus on examining what the Nordic countries have done right compared with other countries.

We should take the happiness indices as seriously as we take metrics like GDP.

The real reasons for the Nordics’ high rankings are more boring. It is the high-quality institutions that explain the high rankings. The institutions that are watchdogs of democracy, corruption, press freedom and so on simply work. Combine this with the welfare policies for which the Nordic countries are famous. When facing various challenges in life, the people can count on the institutions for help. Not perfect, but better than almost anywhere else in the world. When happiness is defined as a quiet satisfaction with one’s life conditions, then Finland, along with the other Nordic countries, might very well be the best place to live in.

But Finnish people might have one asset regarding happiness: our tendency to downplay our own happiness and the norm against too much public display of joy. This might actually make Finns happier. This is because social comparisons seem to play a significant role in people’s life satisfaction. If everybody else is doing better than you, it is hard to be satisfied with your life conditions, no matter how good they objectively are.

This is why researchers are worried about social media. Here people are constantly exposed to idealised versions of other people’s lives. We know this makes people more unhappy, especially youngsters who spend more time on social media. By not displaying, let alone exaggerating, their own happiness, Finns might help each other to make more realistic comparisons, which benefits everybody’s happiness.

When it comes to institutions, it is not about making people happy. It is about removing sources of unhappiness. Well-functioning institutions and welfare services can remove many sources of unhappiness from people’s lives. So citizen happiness should be a serious political goal. For too long, policy-makers have focused on economic metrics when assessing success and progress, which, of course, is an important factor in removing poverty. Politicians and policy-makers should remember the ultimate goal of politics, articulated by Adam Smith in 1759: “All constitutions of government are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them.”

Right now, the happiness ranking is too often treated as a fun triviality―reported in ‘lifestyle’ rather than ‘politics’ section in newspapers. Instead, we should take the happiness indices as seriously as we take metrics like GDP. Rise of citizen happiness should be celebrated, while a drop in average happiness should be treated as a national crisis, meriting serious attention.

So, the ultimate secret to Finnish happiness is simple but perhaps hard to put in practice―make institutions accountable to the citizens at large, not serve just a narrow elite within it.

Martela is a Finnish philosopher.