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What we can learn from the world’s happiest countries

Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook
Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook

Despite the cold and gloomy weather, Scandinavia is the world’s epicentre of happiness, report after report shows.

The 2023 version of the World Happiness Report finds that Finland tops the rankings, with Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway close behind.

To be fair, this is less of a ‘happiness’ index and more a gauge of which countries have done the best at eliminating hardship and misery, experts say. Finns aren’t leaping for joy all day – they’re just relatively content with what they have.

Prepared by Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, the annual study simply asks respondents to rate their lives on a scale from 0 to 10.

The average Finn rates their life a highly respectable 7.8 out of 10. In contrast, the average is just 1.9 in war-torn Afghanistan.

So, what makes Scandinavians so content?

For starters, it’s obvious that the Nordic countries are all wealthy and have small, homogenous populations. These are in fact common features of all nations ranked in the top 10, which suggests that money and social cohesion is a good starting point.

Does this mean we need to divide the world into smaller communities of like-minded individuals? Not at all.

Above all else, the Scandinavian example reflects a strong correlation between equality and happiness. This is not surprising, considering the numerous scientific studies showing that inequality inevitably breeds discontent.

The likes of Finland also have strong levels of trust in institutions – the state in particular. They believe, with good reason, that their institutions are working to raise wellbeing levels, and are relatively free of corruption.

Strong social safety nets are another key part of the equation, since they reduce inequality and hardship. A child from a low-income household can still get a quality education, plus adequate nutrition, for instance.

“There is evidence that other things being equal, countries with higher levels of government social expenditure (but not military expenditure), backed by the revenues to pay for them, have higher well-being,” the report’s authors say.

In short, well-directed social spending leads to higher happiness levels, especially in countries with trusted and effective governments.

The Nordic countries, most of which are led by women below the age of 50, also root their education, prison and healthcare services in neuroscience – they understand that humans are essentially the sum of their upbringings, experiences and surroundings.

This is why Swedish prisons, for example, focus far less on punishing offenders, and more on rehabilitating them and giving them the tools they need to become functional members of society.

The overall lesson is therefore relatively straightforward: Clean, transparent governance, alongside programmes aimed at providing equal access to opportunities and services, is the bedrock of a happy country.

Of course, not all nations have the funding needed for extensive social welfare programmes. At least for the time being.

But having a happy population should be the overarching goal of each state, regardless of its developmental level.

Bhutan, while poor, understands this well.

The rest of the world uses gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress, while Bhutan uses a “gross national happiness” index, which informs policymaking and creates incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses.

After all, what’s the use of a big, growing economy if the vast majority of citizens aren’t happy?

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