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What We Can Learn From Happy Countries

children on beach

For the past 10 years, the UN has kindly been producing the cheerfully named World Happiness Report. Unfortunately for most of us, the report serves to point out that we are in fact living in the wrong country if we want to be filled with joy on the regular. Unless that is, you’re a citizen of Finland (winners for the fifth year in a row), Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who made up the top five in 2022.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I picture a happy existence; it doesn’t include being freezing most of the year or having very few hours of daylight. Yet these dark, cold countries consistently top the polls when asked about how content, positive and optimistic they feel. So what is their secret? And on an individual level, can we mimic some of their habits? I’m not talking about adding a morning ice-cold shower to my routine in the style of the Finnish (did y’all not just hear I don’t like the cold?) or ‘Hygge-ing’ my home like the Danes… I want to know on a practical day-to-day level what the citizens of those countries are getting, which we’re not.

  • Work-life balance

34-hour working week anyone? Sign me up! In Denmark, the world’s second happiest country, a compressed five-day week or an early finish Friday are the norm across the vast majority of occupations. Sounds ideal for doing school drop-offs or pick-ups eh? Speaking of which…

  • Childcare

All children in Denmark from 26 weeks up until school age are entitled to free childcare. Like, completely, totally free. It’s mindblowing for those of us in the UK where it’s common for Mothers to return to work and spend a whopping 65% of their take-home pay on childcare. In Finland, early childcare is heavily subsidised, as it is in most of the top ten happy countries. Add to this the fact that parental leave is so much more robust in these countries, giving parents up to 32 weeks each paid leave which can be shared however they deem fit. Meaning that in terms of society and importantly employers, men are just as entitled to long stretches out of the office as women. Speaking of which…

  • Equality

According to the UN’s World Happiness Report; these top five countries are not just reporting exceptionally high levels of happiness, but they’re also exhibiting exceptional levels of gender equality. In fact, in the top 10 happy countries, there are over 40% of women in parliamentary posts. It seems that a society which allows women to have a true seat at the table turns out better, and no, not at the expense of men. Speaking of which…

  • Relationships

Some of the happier countries like Denmark and Iceland have some of the highest divorce rates in Europe. Yet they are also some of the most successful co-parents too. See; people don’t stay in unhappy marriages in these countries, there isn’t the stigma around divorce or around blended families. And because of all that lovely gender equality and free childcare, they have high amounts of women working full-time, meaning they’re not trapped in unhappy marriages for financial reasons. Speaking of which…

  • Finances

Broadly speaking, the citizens of happier countries have way fewer money worries. Sure, they pay higher taxes than we do in the UK and the US but there is an acceptance that that is the price to pay for free-to-access healthcare, social care and childcare. A 2022 report by Credit Suisse demonstrated that Finland and Denmark, the two holy grail countries when it comes to happiness, were also the countries where citizens shared the highest average personal wealth.

So I guess when reflecting on those five biggies, the things which impact our lives on every level every day, it’s easy to discount buying one of the hundreds of books available on how to be more ‘Hygge’. Ain’t no amount of scented candles and neutral-coloured throws going to improve our mental health and happiness if we’re living in an inequitable society. What we’re really after here is a structural policy overhaul surely. The Finnish aren’t happier because they have better love lives (which incidentally they do), they’re happier because they have an equitable balanced society without the searing extremes in wealth and poverty seen in other nations such as the UK and USA.

Our governments aren’t completely clueless about the changes which need to happen; the UK recently appointed a minister for loneliness and in the UAE they appointed a more positive-sounding minister for happiness. But will they be able to effect the changes required to, you know, cheer us all up?

It could be that those hardy Norwegians have the right idea. They have a word for it; ‘Lagom’. In basic translation, it means ‘just the right amount’. Less striving and more acceptance - an emphasis on moderation and lower personal aspiration in favour of higher societal aspirations.

What can we learn from happier countries? Perhaps they think about their communities and the many citizens of their country as a big extended family. Perhaps they’ve worked out that what will benefit the many is better than what benefits the few.


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