• Dan Connors

The World Happiness Report and the secret sauce of Scandinavia

Updated: Jan 10


Imagine a poll of every country in the entire world where someone goes to random citizens and asks them to rate their happiness on a scale of 0 to 10. What countries do you think would come out on top and why? All humans seek happiness and many governments and businesses promise to deliver it, but what if certain parts of the globe were happiness deserts or hotspots?


The World Happiness Report is just such a poll. Begun in 2012 by the United Nations, this poll, in conjunction with the Gallup organization is one of the most ambitious and fascinating polls I've ever read. The report is updated every year, and the 2020 report came out in March of 2020, just before the Covid epidemic hit everywhere. When so much misery has been brought by this pandemic, it's fascinating to see what the conditions are that produce the best happiness, with the realization that a great percentage of the happiness each of us experiences is still in our own power to control.


Before we dive into this, a few caveats. Happiness is almost an impossible thing to define, but you know it when you see it. Happiness levels can fluctuate widely depending on events, but we all have a happiness "set point" that we generally gravitate towards as life happens. When bad things happen, we feel sad, get over it, and revert to our previous set point. When fortune favors us with happy events, we feel great temporarily, but as time goes on we again drift back down to the set point. Moving that set point is one of the great challenges of life, and getting a healthy attitude about what makes us happy is in many ways up to us. Still, happiness and misery are both contagious, and if our entire community is unhappy, in many ways so are we.


Looking over the WHR is a fascinating overview of the entire planet and where it's at at any particular moment. Rate your life on a scale of 0 to 10. Now ask millions of others all over the world and compare notes.


The WHR looks at six different social criteria to try to explain the raw numbers that they get in from all over the world.

- Gross Domestic Product per capita

- Social Support (determined by the answer to the question "If you were in trouble, do you have anyone you can count on to help you?")

- Healthy Life Expectancy- based on UN data

- Freedom to make choices (based on answers to the question "Are you satisfied with your freedom to do what you choose with your life?)

- Generosity (Based on a poll of if people donate to charity or not)

- Absence of corruption (Based on perceptions of corruption in both business and government)


The 2020 winning country for the happiest people was..... Finland! Finland had an average rating from its citizens of 7.8 out of 10, and they won the 2018 and 2019 results as well. The Nordic countries- Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Denmark, took 5 of the top 7 spots, and northern European countries swept 14 of the top 20 spots. The highest-ranked non-European country was #8 New Zealand, followed by #11 Canada and #12 Australia. The United States, with its world-leading GDP, placed #18 and has gone down several spots since the WHR began.


The World Happiness Report chronicles data from 153 countries worldwide, and its results make sense to those of us who don't get around much. In last place was Afghanistan, with an average rating of 2.567, which is sad, especially considering how much money and military hardware the US has poured into that country for the past 20 years. Nine of the bottom ten are from Africa, with India pulling up at #144 and a rating of 3.57.


Since the report has been going for nearly a decade, they can now track how things are going in several nations over time. Venezuela, Afghanistan, and India all reported the worst drops (over a point) on the index, which tells you that bad things have been happening in all three places in the last decade. Meanwhile, tiny African nations Benin and Togo showed the most improvements in the index over the past decade, followed closely by Hungary and Bulgaria- all a point higher than when the report was started. (Results in the US have dropped by 2 tenths of a point, putting us lower in the year-to-year standings.) In general, since the report has started polling worldwide citizens, average happiness ratings are down by about 3 tenths of a point, with Asia showing the largest decline. Central Europe is the only region showing a significant increase in happiness over the past decade.


The WHR is chock full of statistics and mathematical terms, which can be both confusing and overwhelming. I am not an expert in statistics, and this report is full of them. It's hard to tell how many people were actually interviewed or how reliable the statistics are, but Gallup is one of the best. Wading through pages and pages of dense discussion, I come up with three takeaways:


1- Most of the world is "meh" when it comes to happiness. The average rating is stubbornly right around a 5, which is not that good. A 5 in Somalia may look a lot different than a 5 in Switzerland, but we'd like to see more happiness out there in general, however people are evaluating it.

2- Things appear to be getting worse in the past decade worldwide. You can feel that just by watching the news sometimes. The economy, climate change, racial strife, and the coronavirus are all on a lot of people's minds, and the numbers worldwide show a decline. What could be driving this decline and what can be done about it? (Mind you, this survey was before Covid hit- the 2021 version is likely to be even worse.)

3- Whatever they're doing in the Nordic countries has been working for a long time. We all could learn a lot from their successes.


On the last point, the WHR devotes an entire section to Scandinavia and why they continue to dominate the happiness ratings year after year. What are they doing and why is it working? Can any of that happiness be exported to other more miserable countries? I have nothing against the citizens of Norway and Sweden and don't begrudge them their happiness, but I wish other countries could figure out what their secret is, and copy it somehow. I would think every government on earth would be up there doing research and seeing how they do it.


From the outside, the Nordic countries seem unlikely paradises of happiness. The weather in these countries is among some of the worst in the world. Scandinavian countries have long, cold, and dark winters that are among the most brutal anywhere. Iceland has the dual problem of icy weather and hot volcanoes. One would think that tropical locations would be much more likely to be homes for happy people. Many smaller nations like Samoa and Micronesia aren't rated on the WHR, but they are so tiny and specialized that we couldn't copy them anyway. Polynesian nations suffer from great income inequality and extreme obesity, which makes me think they wouldn't rank that high anyway.


The few tropical places that WHR ranks don't do that well- Jamaica is #60. The richest countries, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, have repressive regimes and limited freedoms for many citizens including women, and they rate at #27 and #21 respectively. So if neither money nor tropical paradise can guarantee the highest happiness, why are the frozen Scandinavian countries (plus Canada, Switzerland, and Netherlands, also cold members of the top dozen), so happy?


From what the report says, it looks like the biggest factor is that the people trust each other and their institutions. These happy outliers are home to high levels of social trust, low corruption, high-functioning democracies, and extensive welfare benefits. Scandinavian countries are known for much lower income inequalities than other countries, which adds to social cohesion because large groups don't feel separated and above all other groups. Nordic countries are stuck in a virtuous cycle, where competent government, generous benefits, and low corruption levels lead people to be more honest and trusting. The opposite negative death spiral happens when people grow distrustful, resentful, and suspicious of everything, and stop cooperating on even the most basic ventures. (Kind of like where America is right now).


Somehow, they have avoided the biggest fears of a socialist paradise- where people stop working hard and individuals fear losing their personal freedoms. On the contrary, Scandinavians feel a high sense of autonomy and freedom to live their lives as they wish, with the backing of their communities and neighbors.


The report debunks one theory that Scandinavia's success is only due to its largely homogeneous population, claiming that Sweden is made up a large proportion of immigrants. Somehow these countries developed largely without the big social drawbacks that still plague us today- feudalism, slavery, and wars- creating instead a quiet economy that works for everybody. The virtuous cycle has been working for centuries and shows no signs of stopping even in today's age of turmoil.


To quote the report directly, "Thus, 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 highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities."


How would you rate your happiness on a scale of 0 to 10? Look over this report at https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/ and see how you compare with the rest of the world.



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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.




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