Why Finland And Denmark Are Happier Than The U.S.

Why Finland And Denmark Are Happier Than The U.S.

January 14, 2020 100 By Stanley Isaacs


What makes me happy is… I think I was definitely born
happy, and then life happens. I’m getting a
bit emotional here. I feel very happy. Very happy. I’m happier now than
when I lived in New York and I got paid probably twice as
much in New York as I do here. Our happiness is kind
of like quiet happiness, kind of a stillness. What does
it take to be happy? The Nordic countries seem to
have it all figured out. Finland and Denmark have
consistently topped the United Nations’ most prestigious index,
the World Happiness Report, in all six
areas of life satisfaction. How have they
cracked the formula? And, are the people they
are really the happiest? The United Nations just named
the happiest place on Earth. It is not Disneyworld. It’s Finland. In 2019, the
World Happiness Report named Finland the happiest country in
the world for the second year in a row. Denmark came
in second place after claiming the top slot in 2013 and 2016. Year after year, Nordic countries
like Norway, Iceland and Sweden round out the
top of the list. Enter Jeffrey Sachs, a professor
at Columbia and the co-editor of the
World Happiness Report. What do those countries have? They have a high level of
prosperity, to be sure, but they’re not the richest countries
in the world by any means. The idea is a
good balance of life. You don’t have to get super
rich to be happy, they believe. In fact, if someone’s super
rich, they, look, what’s wrong with that person? So they’re
not societies that are aiming for all of the effort
and time to becoming gazillionaires. They’re looking for a good balance
of life and the results are extremely positive. The annual happiness ranking began
in 2012, but we can trace measuring happiness
back to 1971. It came in the inspiration of
the country of Bhutan, a country in the Himalayas that
many people know for its innovation of attempting to
measure gross national happiness. Globally, a standard
for measuring success and productivity is gross
national product. Bhutan had the bright idea
of trying to measure happiness. Measuring happiness is a
fairly complicated business. First of all, we need
to understand what happiness means. It means the satisfaction with the
way one’s life is going. It’s not primarily a measure
of whether one laughed or smiled yesterday, but how one
feels about the course of one’s life. Meet Meik Wiking,
happiness researcher and CEO of the Happiness Research
Institute in Denmark. There is a lot of
factors that impact happiness, everything from biology to income levels to
the city they live in. But I think the best predictor
we see in the data of whether people are happy or
not is whether they’re satisfied or happy
with their relationships. So, do we have somebody we can
rely on in times of need? Do we have somebody we can
share our hopes and worries with? These six categories help
account for the differences in life satisfaction
around the world. GDP per capita, healthy life
expectancy, freedom to make life choices, social support,
generosity, and absence of corruption. On average, richer
countries are happier. On average, richer
people are happier. But, once we get to a
certain level of income, an additional $100 a month is not
going to impact how people feel about their lives. So,
with money, like with everything else, we see
diminishing marginal return. And I don’t know why I’m
bringing up this quote, because it’s extremely corny, but there is
a Kanye West song in which he says that, “Having
money is not everything. Not having it is.” And I do
think that’s true in the sense that when you don’t have it,
it’s all you worry about. And when you do have money,
you can actually worry about other stuff. Happiness also seems
like this elusive thing. We have two words
for happiness in Danish. So we have “lykke,” which
is the elusive thing. The thing you experience
once every blue moon. And then we have to be “glad,”
like the word glad, which is different because it’s more down to
Earth and you can be glad despite the fact that
it’s not anything special, it’s no special day. Lykke seems like this elusive
thing that you can’t quite chase. To be glad is
more like our mindset. So I feel more like I choose
to be glad at times rather than sort of trying to
chase happiness because that seems like it’s never going
to happen that way. Maria lives in Helsinki with
her husband, Duke, and her 2-year-old son, Luka. Woah! Wow! Ah, hi! Yeah! There
it is. There it is, you little monster. Finland is the best
place to have kids. When you go give
birth, it’s almost free. We stayed in the hospital three
full days as a family. We had our own family room
and we got like meals and support and help
and everything. And the bill was about
€300 in the end. It’s basically like living
in a hotel. In Finland, new mothers receive
a free baby box jam-packed with 63 items to help
with the baby’s first year. You don’t have to buy anything
for the first two, three months. Of course, diapers and
stuff like that, but basically. And also, you can
actually put your baby to sleep in that box. Our baby actually, Luka slept in
the box for the first month. Finland, along with
the other Nordic countries, offers generous
parental leave. Anu Partanen, author of “The
Nordic Theory of Everything,” spent 10 years as a
journalist in the U.S. before returning to her
home country, Finland. She’s also a mother. In Finland,
you get 10 months of paid parental leave, out of which about
four months is set aside for the mother and you start it
before the baby is born and then father can
keep nine weeks. Typically, both parents stay home
for the first three weeks. They share the rest of
the time until the baby is nine months old. A parent can even stay home until
the child is 3 years old and keep his or her job. However, the stipend
is much smaller. Another determinant of well-being
is one’s sense of personal freedom to make
important life choices. Can you shape your life
the way you want? Christina was unhappy at her job
in advertising and took an eight-month break. Social security
is also something I think is very important. What I did didn’t make me happy
and it didn’t let me have that work-life balance that we
cherish so much here. And so we have a system that
made it possible for me to quit my job and have some
thinking time and figure out, you know, what’s my next
step in life. Christina received about $2,000 a
month from the Danish government while she
was unemployed. She is now in school
to become a painter. Her tuition is covered and
she receives an educational stipend of about
$1,000 a month. Two of the biggest perks of
life in Denmark and Finland are free education and
free health care. Income taxes are not at all
as high in the Nordic countries that Americans tend to think. However, overall, it is completely
true that the Nordic countries collect more taxes in
general than the United States does. In Finland and
the Nordic countries, there are higher taxes on consumption, like
eating in restaurants and buying jeans. But the thing that
I think a lot of Americans forget is that the Nordic people
are happy to pay those taxes because they get
services in return. Day care, great
public education. It includes your
college tuition, free. It includes healthcare, all of
those are included in your taxes. When the news hit
that Finland is the happiest country in the world, I think
most people kind of reacted to it, like, what
are they talking about? We don’t think of ourselves as
very happy because it’s dark and gloomy in the
winter and whatever. It’s easier for Finns and
Danes to shape their lives because the government supports so
many of their basic needs. The American dream is
probably more alive in Denmark. The perception of freedom
is probably also a little bit different. It seems
like in the U.S. the feeling is you have to
be protected from the government and you have to have
freedom from the government. I think in Denmark the
sense is that the government protects you. People
trust other people. You leave a bag in a
restaurant in Finland, you’re pretty sure you’re going to make it
back and the money is still there. People even leave babies
parked in strollers outside coffee shops while
they run errands. And I think partly the
Nordic society cultivates that trust simply by providing basic
services for everyone. So there’s much less poverty,
much less feeling of injustice, inequality, crime. People get the
education they need. They can have a
job. They can work. They don’t have to struggle
in life as much. There isn’t super wealth and
there’s absolutely no super poverty. Everybody
participates. It turns out it leads to a
wonderful kind of life and one that is expressed, year after
year, as making these countries the happiest countries
in the world. Monica and Alex are expats
who live in Copenhagen with their two teenagers. Alex is originally from the
UK and Monica is originally from New York. What else do you need? The olive oil, and
then the balsamic vinegar. Where’s the bowl? We originally
came here expecting to stay only three years, but it was
so good, we’ve been here nine now. It’s also safe. And this comes back to
the community and the trust. We can let our kids go out and
we do not have to sit here being really worried that, are
they going to come back? Are they safe
where they’re going? Do we have to go pick them up? You still worry, of course,
but it’s just very different. There’s still this very strong
sense of family, friends, community. Balance is the
formula for happiness. Aristotle had it right when
he launched the study of happiness 2,300 years ago. According to Aristotle’s Golden
Mean, good behavior lies between two vices,
excess and deficiency. People who pursue only money and
say, “I’ll be happier the richer I am,” turn out
to be less happy. I do think having nice surroundings
is a part of happiness. But I also think it needs
to be linked with something that sort of resonates with you
on a deeper level. Having nice surroundings and having
a lot of money and being in a five-star hotel in
Las Vegas doesn’t make you happy at all. So I think
it needs to have that balance. Cue the classic
Nordic work-life balance. Rich Perusi, former New Yorker,
has been living in Copenhagen for seven years. People stay pretty tight to
a 9 to 5 workday. But I do think that we get
as much done in a short period of time here as we were
doing in longer times working in New York. One of the comments
we actually heard when we first came here was a Dane
saying, when she saw someone working late, “Are they doing
it because they can’t get their work done? Is there
something wrong with them?” Versus, “Are they just trying
to get ahead in working?” There is a sense that, yes,
work’s important and you need to get your work done to a
high quality, but you also need to make sure
it’s balanced appropriately. Saara Alhopuro is a diplomat
who has shaped her work schedule to make time
for her passion. So, I actually need to go
to my physical workplace only three days a week. So then the rest of the time
I can spend here in the middle of nature. When I walk in
the forest, I walk there very quietly, paying attention to all
the small details and all the colors. Very slowly, and I
try to spot all the small, small details. And I completely
lose the track of time. Usually, I spend about five
to six hours picking mushrooms. People don’t make as much money
in the Nordic countries as they do in the U.S. So, it’s not really about
how much you make. You don’t have to make as much
to get the same quality of life as you would
in the United States. So, if we look at
the dimension called life satisfaction, we can see that that money
does matter for well-being and happiness. But I mean, on
average, richer countries are happier. On average, richer
people are happier. But, the mechanism here is being
without money is a cause of unhappiness. Not everyone likes
to talk about money either. In Finland, it’s been this
kind of rule that you don’t talk about money that much,
at least like my parents basically wouldn’t tell me how
much they made, for example, if I would ask as a kid. It would be considered bragging if
you would tell about how much you make, etc. People
are happier when they are generous and when they feel
that the society that they’re in is a generous society. And then we find people want
to live in places with decent government. If government is
corrupt, if leaders are bizarre or autocratic or corrupt,
the society is unhappy. In 2019, Finland elected
the world’s youngest-serving prime minister, 34 year
old Sanna Marin. Danes are among the happiest
people in the world, but they’re not necessarily
the friendliest. Lars AP, author of “F***ing
Flink” and founder of the movement of the same name,
wants to change that. So F***ing Flink is
a national movement. Our prime goal is to take
Danes that are among the happiest people in the world, but
also being the friendliest people in the world. Why
are we doing this? Well, because friendliness and
positive human interaction means so much to us.
Science shows us that. And so we’re trying to do
that in all sectors, in all realms that we can think of. Finland and Denmark both have
populations of less than 6 million people. The U.S. has over 330 million people. The Nordic countries are
pretty homogeneous, too. Do population size and
diversity affect happiness? A lot of countries
with relatively homogeneous populations, similarities among people ethnically
or in terms of religion and so on,
are not very happy. So it’s no guarantee. And on the other hand, it’s
possible to have a lot of diversity and more happiness. Our northern neighbor in the
United States, Canada, ranks higher. Yeah, I think Finland is
probably one of the most homogenous countries
in Europe. Still, we have recently had
quite a lot of immigration. But I would say that
still it is fairly homogenous. I think it’s funny because I
kind of always, I guess, assumed that Danish society
was kind of diverse. But then we went to see
Dave Chappelle’s show here in Copenhagen and both him and the guy
who he had with him as support kind of opened their
show saying, “Denmark is so white.” And I never really
thought about that before. But then, ever since that show,
I just think about it all the time. We’ve been having
immigration for hundreds of years from all over Europe. I mean, in the 70s, we had
a lot of people from Turkey coming up, from from Vietnam. And we had people from
Yugoslavia in the 90s. And Denmark has remained
happy throughout that period. The 2018 World Happiness
Report explores happiness among natives and immigrants. It shows that when immigrants
are happy, the countries are, too. But if the country
is already happy, new immigrants will experience
increased happiness. It shouldn’t undermine happiness
in the Nordic countries that there are influx
of people born abroad. There’s also a dark
side to happiness. Like in Denmark, one of the
biggest epidemics right now is stress and people being sick
with stress and having to leave their jobs. And people outside of Denmark
didn’t really understand what that meant, like, “What do
you mean stress leave?” But it might be that
expectation to have a work-life balance here that
stresses people out. That you both have to work, but
you also have to take care of your family. You also have
to be social with your friends. You also have to,
you know, do this self-realization thing, hobbies
and traveling. And there’s so much you have to
do in the same amount of hours, whereas maybe in New York
or other places, you know that you’re going to work to
10 every day so you don’t expect to have the
same balance, you know? It can be hard for outsiders
to break into the Nordic cultures. The Danes have such
tight-knit friend and family groups. It’s not very natural
for them to just include people, new people
into their groups. It is a little harder to come
in from the outside to sort of become part of that group. We’ve had some great Danish friends,
some met at work, but it is harder, I think, from
that on that side, compared to the UK and the U.S.
in terms of developing friendships. There can be serious side
effects to maintaining high levels of happiness. Within the states, if you look
at the level of life satisfaction, the higher the
life satisfaction actually also the slightly higher the
level of suicide rates. And the theory here is that
it might be more difficult to be unhappy in an otherwise
happy society because it creates a stronger contrast to how you
are feeling if you are surrounded by very
happy people. So Denmark actually used to
have really high suicide rates. So in 1980, we had suicide
rates of around 40 per 100,000, which was I think some of
the highest in the world. Now, fortunately, it’s around 25%
of that, so it’s around 10 per 100,000. South Korea and Lithuania have
some of the highest suicide rates in the OECD as of 2017. So fortunately, suicide rates have
been reduced a lot in Denmark. And also in Finland,
there’s also been a great reduction over the
past two decades. But still, it’s not zero. So we still need to
reduce that even further. Despite mental health challenges, a
big part of Finnish culture focuses on
overall well-being. Sauna is a sacred
thing for Finns. I have like so many good
memories about having these sauna moments with my family. Sauna is something that I suppose
you kind of have to like and love as a Finn. As of 2018, there were 5.5 million people living in
Finland and around 2.3 million saunas. My grandmother always used to tell
us kids that we can’t fight in the sauna because then
we would risk angering the sauna elf. And there’s even even
a sauna in the government of Finland, where they say that
they make some of the most important political compromises
because you’re culturally not allowed to fight
in the sauna. Danes have mastered the art
of comfort and coziness through hygge. I think the best short
definition of what hygge is the art of creating
a nice atmosphere. And of course, that is
something that happens everywhere. But what is uniquely Danish is
we have a word that describes that situation. You can curl up in a couch
and read a good book and have good music on and just be
in a hyggekrog, it actually means a hygge corner of your room. There’s a social component to hygge
which I think is really important. Hygge seeps everywhere
throughout the country, from cozy drinks
to warm lighting. So one concrete manifestation of
hygge is the focus on lighting. The rule of thumb is
the warmer, the light, the more hyggelig the lights. So Danes love candles. So how does hygge
contribute to happiness? So happiness is both having a
strong sense of purpose in life. It’s also experiencing moments
of pleasure on a daily basis. It’s also feeling
satisfied with life overall. So, hygge, is this element in
our daily lives where we experience comfort and pleasure
and togetherness and hopefully over time that accumulates
also to a higher sense of life satisfaction. Another way Denmark and
Finland support their citizens? Paid annual vacation. So in all Nordic countries, everybody
has a right to paid annual vacation. It varies a
little by country, but in Finland, for example, it’s typically,
after you work one year for the same employer, it’s
four weeks in the summer and one week in the
winter and everybody gets this. I actually heard a statistic. It’s something like, when Americans
go home after work October 27, you guys have worked
as much as Danes will work for the entire year. But I actually think that taking
a little more time off also makes you a
lot more productive. In Finland, it’s traditional to
spend the summer in a summer cottage or mökki. We did have a summer house
was when I was little. It was something that my
grandfather built himself during the 60s I think. And we used to go ther like
all the time when I was small. A week doesn’t go past during
the summer when I’m not thinking like, “Oh, I wish
we still had it.” Traditionally, the mökkis
wouldn’t have necessarily electricity or running water. And usually, most mökkis come with
a lake or the Baltic Sea. You can go to your sauna
and have a dip in the water. So in a Nordic country,
the vacation time also serves families that if the parents
stagger their vacations a bit, they can handle much easier
the summer vacations for their children. And of course, then
the family can spend time together. Maybe Finnish happiness is
more like inside, you know. It’s like inner peace,
or something like that. It’s not so open. It’s like balance. It’s more balanced, I think. So, ready! Ultimately, happiness
is relative. If you think you are having
more sex than your neighbor, then you’re happier. We
are social beings. We compare ourselves
to each other. So there are social comparisons in
salary in terms of the houses and how successful we believe
we are, but also in terms of sex. So what’s one
small way we can be happier today? For me, something that I’ve
done which has made me happier is exercise. I think the saying no, or being
a tiny bit more selfish can make you happy. One step to
improve your sense of happiness is go first. You’re walking down the street,
someone else comes walking towards you. It might
be just a smile. It might be just looking the
other person in the eye, whatever it is. But go first
with that, because you can’t expect that the other person
is gonna do it. Don’t be reactive, go first. In Denmark, we sometimes talk
about the ABC for mental health. If you want to boost
your mood, three sort of universal tips is doing
something active, doing something together with other people
and doing something meaningful. So, gather a group of
friends, go for a walk. That could be something that
could boost your mood. Predicting the future on
this is very difficult, unfortunately. Where will
the U.S. be? It could be
even worse than now. It could be much
better than now. It’s a matter of actually
making choices for a better direction for the country and one
that is not guided by fear and hate, but one that
is guided by a sense of community and the common good.