THE HAPPIEST NATIONS

Is Scandinavian living still the ultimate recipe for happiness? As Finland and its contented neighbours continue to top happiness charts worldwide, Emma Johnson goes in search of the Nordic utopia

“If you were to envision the world’s happiest people, you might imagine an island nation somewhere, where folks sit on a beach slurping juice out of coconuts all day. But, more realistically, you might picture a dude in slim-cut slacks, eight months into paternity leave, biking his two young kids to a coffee shop under a cold, slate sky.” (Brent Gianotta, thrillist.com)

In 2019, the World Happiness Report announced, once again, that Finland was the happiest place in the world. For the second year running, this small, unassuming northern European country had cemented itself as the best place in the world to live. Close behind it was its other Nordic neighbours, with Denmark in second place, Norway in third, Iceland in fourth and Sweden in fifth. This meant, that the top five happiest nations in the world, were comprised entirely of Nordic countries. The usual platitudes abounded, citing the merits of various Scandinavian (the smaller collection of just Norway, Sweden and Denmark) and Nordic cultural and political leanings that lent themselves to a measure of happiness.

But, really, this wasn’t new information. The fascination with the Nordic recipe for joy has been in popular culture for a decade now. The New York Times called Denmark a ‘happiness superpower’ in 2009, and since then, books and features have hypothesised about the Danish art of living well and the Scandinavian secret to happiness.

“In the Nordic countries we score high on life satisfaction,” says Onor Hanreck Wilkinson, researcher at The Happiness Institute in Copenhagen. “We profit from a high level of safety, support and trust in our society, we trust our governance and we live in a part of the world which allows us to thrive.”

Buzzwords such as hygge, lykke, lagom, fika are now part of our global parlance. Being cosy has become cool. Candles, mood lighting, artfully-draped blankets and hot cinnamon drinks feature on every social media feed across the globe. Influencers and journalists alike talk about the power of hygge, the life-changing magic of lagom. Whole books are being written about lykke – the Danish word for happiness.

But what do these things really mean? And how do they lead to a culture of national happiness? The truth is that they both are at the centre of Nordic joy, but are also supported by something much bigger than a cultural love of scented candles and log fires.

“While some of the praise heaped on the Nordic nations in the international media have surely been exaggerated and over-positive – no place is perfect, as the Nordic people themselves will be the first to point out – the Nordic countries have undeniably created a model for what a high quality of life and a healthy society can look like in the twenty-first century,” says Anu Partanen, the Finish author of The Nordic Theory of Everything.

Partanen refers of course to the famed and quite extraordinary welfare states, renowned across the Nordic region for providing a sort of social safety net for their citizens. High-quality, free education, a commitment to closing the gender gap and changing the culture of presenteeism at work, generous time off and pay for new fathers and mothers, universal and free health care, as well as a progressive and successful approach to ending homelessness and a supportive unemployment benefit system means Nordic citizens live life with considerably less fear about money, employment and family.

Meik Wiking agrees. Founder of The Happiness Institute in Denmark, and author of the bestselling Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, Wiking explains that welfare and wellbeing go hand in hand in Denmark. “The key to understanding the high levels of wellbeing in Denmark is the welfare model’s ability to reduce risk, uncertainty and anxiety in its citizens and to prevent extreme unhappiness,” he says. In Denmark, the welfare model turns collective wealth into wellbeing. “We are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life,” adds Wiking.

So, does this mean that in the end, Scandinavian people are happier?  “Yes,” says Bronte Aurell, Swedish author of North: How to Live Scandinavian. “We are pretty good at taking stock of what we have and asking ourselves: “Do I have everything I need’? Asking this is not a small thing, but it’s hard for Nordics to say ‘no’ to that. You need to remember that the people of the Nordics have a very solid social system and we do have what we need. Our basic needs are met. We feel safe, we are supported. We won’t fall through the net if we lose our jobs. We have opportunities. We have balance with work. We have a pretty good deal.”

It’s clear that the political stability and generous welfare state in the Nordic countries goes a long way to increasing quality of life and therefore happiness. But what if you don’t live there? How do you find or create this kind of happiness that seems steeped into every fabric of the national culture?

Perhaps this is where Scandinavian concepts for living have a value that we can all learn from. “I have come to realize that there might be an overlooked ingredient in the Danish recipe for happiness,” says Meik Wiking. “And that is hygge.”

Hygge might, on the surface, appear to be about nice décor, candlelight and cinnamon buns, but on a deeper level, it’s about comfort, companionship and community. Hygge encourages people to find happiness in small moments, and to do this by making these moments beautiful, joyful, comfortable and cosy. This is the simple act of hygge – whether that is a warm cup of coffee, a freshly-baked cake shared with friends, a well-chosen playlist at dinner time, the scent of a pomegranate candle, or the welcoming sight of a cushion-laden couch in your parents’ home – something that makes your day-to-day living, each moment, more filled with pleasure and consideration for making things nice.

Bronte Aurell explains that where hygge has real power is in the way it encourages us to find happiness in the now, not in something striven for, years in the future. “Happiness is being able to stop and say to myself: “I am happy, right now.” I feel that sometimes, people view happiness as this huge goal they need to strive for continuously and sometimes we forget to stop and appreciate the here and now.”

And it is this constant living with hygge, and the very nature of its nurturing, cosy essence, that encourages us to live better, happier lives. At the beginning of her book, Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness, Danish actress Marie Tourell Søderberg describes what hygge means to her, citing such things as meeting her sister in the park for a walk, drinking wine in her mother’s garden, listening to the rain with her boyfriend – and so on. What is interesting here, is the themes that emerge from this short, but specific list. Family features heavily – her sister, her mother, her boyfriend; while the weather and nature are almost constantly referred to – summer days, walks in the park, rain on the window. In addition, pleasure – good food, wine and coffee is always present, so too is community – time with friends or family, making connections and sharing parts of herself. “When I look at my list, togetherness seems to be central,” she says. “And I feel that sharing a sincere moment of hygge brings us closer.”

Hanreck Wilkinson agrees, explaining that research has shown how this sense of community is so important for wellbeing. “Cherishing relationships and togetherness fits into the idea of happiness because – through happiness research – we have found that social relationships are essential for people’s happiness. These concepts encourage us to be together, and being together makes us happy,” she says.

Because, Hygge doesn’t just stop at beautiful homes, cosy fashion or bracing walks in the snow. It’s about who you do this with, how you do it, and what that means for both you, and the people around you. The more you practice hygge as an act of love and connection, the happier you make yourself, and others. One moment from Søderberg’s book that sticks out, is how hygge translates into our relationships in a myriad of ways. One of Søderberg’s friends recalls how she tries to put guests at ease when they come to visit. Something, she says, that is not just about making people comfortable and offering them a drink, but also includes making them feel at ease in themselves. “I throw my legs up on the sofa, to indirectly show my guests that they are welcome to do the same, and I will tell my guests about a mistake I made at work, or how I have a kayaking test tomorrow and I’m really nervous about it. It’s about daring to share something about yourself and show you’re not infallible. When I invite people home, I invest myself in them.”

For the Danes – and its Scandinavian neighbours – hygge is central to their existence and continues to be an important part of their culture, long after the zeitgeist-y books and ‘current trends’ articles have stopped being written. As the popularity of hygge has grown, it has simply reminded a lot of the world, just how important comfort is, and how much we should value those things over the most ostentatious signs of success and happiness that we have come to prioritise. For the Danes, career, money and mansions matter much, much less than family, companionship and community – and this is what they work towards always. “For many Danes, hygge is something you strive for. It’s like a compass, steering us towards small moments that money cannot buy you, finding magic in the ordinary,” adds Søderberg.

Of course, this is not to say, that there is no sadness in Scandinavia, that there is no worry, anxiety, depression and stress. In fact, there is, and Meik Wiking has been quite vocal about misunderstanding the perceived utopia of Scandinavia – some parts of which have higher suicide rates than you would expect. But, says Wiking, this is actually an expected feature of a culture so famed for its perceived happiness, and one that now, due to social media and worldwide attention is more obvious than ever. As people become more and more aware of the happiness of others, their own lives by comparison can seem small and unimportant.

And it’s not that people in Scandinavia don’t get sad. Of course, they do. And there is worry and doubt in every household at times. But, in many cases, the very nature of their cultural approach to life provides a remedy for their problems – a place to feel safe, to heal, to nurture. “The things that make me sad are injustice, and unkind people. In short, mainly things I can’t control,” says Aurell. “But once I’m by my kitchen table with my family, then all of those things are locked outside – and they can’t get in.”

And this is the crux of it. Hygge is the antidote to sadness, the supportive cocoon around daily challenges that makes life feel better, happier. “One of the most interesting findings in recent years,” explains Miek Wiking. “Is that the experience of positive emotions matters more to our overall wellbeing – measured in terms of life satisfaction – than the absence of negative emotions.” In short, we will have bad days, but if we also have good moments in these days, it can lift us immeasurably.

As we have seen, this Scandinavian legend of happiness comes in part from social systems that put people first and which have resulted in happier nations. And yet, it just isn’t as simple as this, because it is also about a culture that values celebrating what you have, enjoying the small moments, and making time for beauty, nature, good living and family. “What I do think, is that people in other places – busier places, places with less safety nets, are longing for this,” says Aurell. “A reason to reconnect, leave work earlier, study, read, be with family and maybe not be so focused on the rat race. And, if so – good. Take care of yourself. Go home to your family. Hug your kids. Turn your phone off. All of that is important.” And all of that, is hygge.