I am sure like many you will have missed the release of the 2020 Happiness report that was released in March. Once again, the Nordic countries occupy the top spots along with countries such as New Zealand and Switzerland.
The report stated that people tend to be happier in countries where there is easy access to relatively generous welfare benefits, and where the labour market is regulated to avoid employee exploitation. Access to financial support and protection from exploitation are paramount during the Covid-19 pandemic as economies implode across the world.
Quality of government is another key explanation often provided for the high life satisfaction of Nordic countries. Typically, government quality has been divided into two dimensions: Democratic quality and delivery quality.
The first is about the access to power including factors such as the ability to participate in selecting the government, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and political stability. The latter is about the exercise of power, including the rule of law, control of corruption, regulatory quality, and government effectiveness.
The Nordic countries are also well known for low levels of income inequality. Europeans prefer more equal societies, and inequality has a negative relation with happiness, especially among the poor in Europe. Thus, low levels of inequality might be important for the happiness of Nordic citizens.
Trust in other people has also been linked to citizen happiness. The most used measure of generalised trust asks about whether most people can be trusted such as whether people believe that a lost wallet will be returned to its owner.
Social cohesion, the sense of belonging of a community, has three dimensions including connectedness to other people, having good social relations, and having a focus on the common good. Denmark, Finland, and Sweden occupy the top three positions in the 2020 index of social cohesion, making trust and social cohesion an explanation for the Nordic happiness.
A comparison of the US and Denmark shows that the favourable difference in happiness for the Danes was particularly pronounced for low income citizens. Being poor in Denmark does not have as harsh an effect on happiness as in the US, where the gap between rich and poor is much larger and where there are not similar welfare services and public goods available for the poor.
All Nordic countries are in the top 11 in the world as regards low levels of variance in life evaluations meaning that people’s happiness scores tend to be closer to one another in these countries compared with other countries in the world.
Of the top 10 richest countries in the world, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland rank similarly to Nordic countries in terms of both high life satisfaction and low inequality of life satisfaction scores. In contrast, the other richest countries such as the US, Russia and Hong Kong, have a more unequal distribution of happiness, and the average life satisfaction in these countries is lower than in the Nordics.
The general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens is all about ensuring that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens during periods of adversity such as the pandemic we are presently experiencing.
Hopefully after this pandemic is over our leaders will reflect on how they look after their people and take inspiration from our Nordic brothers and sisters.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org