Life Lessons From the Happiest Countries

World Happiness Report about the happiest countries

Finland came in number 1 in this year’s World Happiness Report – Nordic countries typically dominate the top ten.

Why are people in some countries happier than others?  What factors contribute to happiness and how can we improve happiness at home and in the workplace?  We can apply lessons from the happiest countries in the world on how to be happy.

Listen and Learn

Freakanomics recently released a podcast “How to be Happy” addresses those questions and does a deep dive into Denmark’s consistently high happiness ranking.  It’s definitely worth a listen (or a read since it’s also been transcribed).  It includes engaging interviews with: Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen; Jeff Sachs, economics professor at Columbia University, special adviser to the UN Secretary General on the Sustainable Development Goals and co-editor of the World Happiness Report; and Helen Russell, journalist and author.

What are the Happiest Countries?

The U.N.’s World Happiness Report, which ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants (and also serves as an antidote to our unhealthy obsession with Gross Domestic Product), is typically topped by Nordic countries.  In 2018 Finland took the top spot as the happiest country.  The rest of the top ten in order of overall happiness were Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia.

The U.S. ranked 18th, dropping down four spots from last year. Sachs explained, “The U.S. happiness ranking is falling, in part because of the ongoing epidemics of obesity, substance abuse and untreated depression.”

Who’s Ranking Happiness and Why?

It turns out that in the early 1970’s the King of Bhutan, a wise leader, questioned the validity of pursuing Gross National Product when instead the focus should be on pursuing Gross National Happiness.  This notion became popular with a small group of economists (and Buddhists).  Bhutan, a poor country based on traditional measurements, went on to survey GNH and establish a Gross National Happiness commission, declaring that all legislation should be an evaluated happiness benefit-cost ratio.  While this concept was (and still is) jarring to some economists, Sachs began meeting with the king, world leaders and economists on this approach.  This led to the creation of the UN’s World Happiness Report.  This concept was (and still is) jarring to some economists.

Now, according to Sachs, governments are increasingly using indicators of happiness to inform their policy-making decisions.  He had this to say about measuring GPD and incomes:

Let’s get serious about the quality of our lives, and stop this nonsense of chasing such a poor indicator that is taking us actually farther away from our happiness.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

What is it about those Nordic countries?  Here are some factors that boost happiness levels:

  • Access to healthcare
  • Access to childcare
  • Paid paternity leave
  • Free education (through college)
  • Shorter work weeks
  • Less focus on acquisition of material items
  • Conspicuous consumption is frowned upon
  • Strong social trust
  • Membership in clubs and groups
  • Emphasis on fitness and outdoor activities

Some of these things come at a hefty price tag in terms of taxes and the cost of living, so while other countries may seek to replicate this, costs may be prohibitive.  However, in your own life or in the workplace you can do a self audit and see where your priorities lay and perhaps focus more energy and resources in pursuit of a happiness inducing mind set with activities that support it.

The happiest countries have fewer issues with obesity and the opioid epidemic.

It Goes Back to Aristotle

Both Sachs and Wiking referenced ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle when defining (and measuring) happiness.

Wiking mused:

To him, the good life was the meaningful life. So here we try to understand, do people have a sense of purpose?

Sachs said:

[Aristotle] pointed out in the Nicomachean Ethics, 2,300 years ago, that to be happy requires the good benefit of having material needs met. So don’t deny those, he said. But he also said, only aiming for wealth, single-mindedly pursuing a higher wealth, is certainly no way to happiness and after a certain point of income, work on other things — work on your friendship, work on your mental health, work your physical health. Work on good governance, work on your charitableness. Because in this kind of world, a good life is a balanced and a virtuous life. Not a single-minded pursuit of income.

Money Can’t Buy It

There is a paradox in the United States, a conventionally wealthy nation, that income per person rises, but happiness does not.  Sachs believes this is because America is falling behind other countries in important areas that impact happiness such as physical health, mental health in our communities and social supports.

The Nordic Way

You don’t need to pack up shop and head to a Nordic country.  You can glean some of this wisdom from these books and articles and then apply key principals in your private and professional life.
Helen Russell actually did move to Denmark, where her happiness increased exponentially and she wrote a book about it:  “The Year of Living Danishly:  Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.”  Read this to learn more about the Danes and their happiness.

 

Remember Meik Wiking from the podcast?  He explores the Nordic philosophy of hygee (the Norwegian and Danish word pronounced hoo guh – for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment) in “The Little Book of Hygge:  Danish Secrets to Happy Living.”

 

Anna Altman’s article in The New Yorker, “The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy” also examines the hygge phenomenon.

 

Looking for more Nordic wisdom? Check out Katja Pantzar’s book “The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu”

 

Want to bring more happiness to your life? Consider these activities:
  • Get outside more often
  • Join a club
  • Find a satisfying hobby
  • If you’re wealthy – don’t be flashy about it
  • Don’t compare your situation to others
  • Spend less time in the workplace
  • Make your home a cozy, snuggly place to unwind

Bring More Happiness to your Workplace

What activities from the list above can you bring to your workplace? Don’t forget gratitude; it’s one of the foundations of happiness. Download this free resource to building workplace gratitude and re-invigorate your commitment to building a vibrant, happy and loyal workplace.

 

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