The World

The Grim Secret of Nordic Happiness

It’s not hygge, the welfare state, or drinking. It’s reasonable expectations.

A man walking alone through a blizzard.
Pedestrians make their way through a thick layer of snow covering the streets of Helsinki on Jan. 12. Vesa Moilanen/Getty Images

Is hygge still a thing? The Danish concept of comfortable conviviality and all things cozy is supposed to capture the essence of Danish culture and has been marketed as the secret for happy living. A few years back, there was a surge of hygge-related books, articles, and household products. Journalists from around the world were touring Denmark to document various aspects of this unique lifestyle. The enthusiasm around Denmark was stimulated by the nation’s reputation of being the happiest country in the world. However, last time I checked, the designer store across the street here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had moved its selection of Hygge branded candles to the clearance corner.

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If there has been a downturn in the hygge industry in recent years, it may be because Finland, my home country, has surpassed Denmark in the World Happiness Report four years running. Denmark occupies the third place, after Iceland, in the most recent edition, released in March, and its distance to Finland is growing. As reported by multiple media outlets, the Finnish spiritual equivalent to hygge is something far less convivial and much more difficult to pronounce: kalsarikännit, which translates as “pantsdrunk,” refers to the practice of binge drinking home alone in your underpants. If this is a secret to happy life, let’s keep it that way: a secret.

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Nobody is more skeptical than the Finns about the notion that we are the world’s happiest people. To be fair, this is hardly the only global ranking we’ve topped recently. We are totally fine with our reputation of having the best educational system (not true), lowest levels of corruption (probably), most sustainable economy (meh), and so forth. But happiest country? Give us a break. As reported by a correspondent for the Economist, when a Cabinet member of the Finnish government was introduced at an international conference as “the representative of the happiest country in the world,” he responded: “If that’s true, I’d hate to see the other nations.”

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Finland hasn’t always had such a blissed out international reputation. In 1993, when I was living in New York and still fresh off the boat, 60 Minutes featured a segment on Finland, which opened with this description of Helsinki pedestrians going about their business: “This is not a state of national mourning in Finland, these are Finns in their natural state; brooding and private; grimly in touch with no one but themselves; the shyest people on earth. Depressed and proud of it.” As far as facial expressions of the Finnish people, not much has changed since then. We are still just as reserved and melancholy as before. If happiness were measured in smiles, Finnish people would be among the most miserable in the world.

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As it turns out, the World Happiness Report—the annual study responsible for these rankings—does not pay any attention to smiles, laughter, or other outward expressions of joy. Instead, the report relies on Gallup polls, which ask respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero to 10. The top rung (10) represents the best possible life for you, while the bottom rung (zero) represents the worst. The survey participants are then instructed to report the number that corresponds to the rung on which they are currently standing. In other words, you are deemed happy if your actual life circumstances approximate your highest expectations. No need to clap your hands or stomp your feet.

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Given this emotionless definition of happiness, it is not so surprising why my compatriots score high on what should be described as average life evaluations. Compared with most other countries, objective living circumstances in Finland are very good indeed: the rates of poverty, homelessness, and other forms of material deprivation are as low as they get; people have universal and free access to world-class education and health care; parental leaves are generous and paid vacations are long. These are the kinds of factors most experts focus on when making sense of why Finland, Denmark, and the other Nordic welfare states dominate the happiness rankings.

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But there is more to the story. We should not ignore expectations, the other aspect of the formula used in the World Happiness Report. Consistent with their Lutheran heritage, the Nordic countries are united in their embrace of curbed aspirations for the best possible life. This mentality is famously captured in the Law of Jante—a set of commandments believed to capture something essential about the Nordic disposition to personal success: “You’re not to think you are anything special; you’re not to imagine yourself better than we are; you’re not to think you are good at anything,” and so on. The Nordic ethos stands in particularly stark contrast to the American culture characterized by “extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success,” as observed by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1930s.

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The Nordic countries provide decent lives for their citizens and prevent them from experiencing sustained periods of material hardship. Moreover, they embrace a cultural orientation that sets realistic limits to one’s expectations for a good life. In these societies, the imaginary 10-step ladder is not so tall, the first rung is pretty high up, and the distance between the steps is relatively short. People are socialized to believe that that what they have is as good as it gets—or close enough. This mindset explains why Finns are the happiest people in the world despite living in small apartments, earning modest incomes—with even more limited purchasing power thanks to high prices and taxes—and, unlike Iceland, having never even made it to the World Cup!

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So, yes, I do think culture matters a great deal to understanding why countries like Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden score high on this particular indicator of happiness. But the relevant cultural characteristic is neither hygge nor, unfortunately, kalsarikännit. If I had to pick a Scandinavian word to capture the correct cultural ingredient in Nordic happiness, it would probably be the Swedish and Norwegian term lagom, which can be translated as “just the right amount,” i.e., neither too much nor too little. Similar to hygge in Denmark, lagom is frequently thought to capture the essence of Swedish culture—its embracement of modesty and rejection of excess—but, in reality, these values characterize the entire Nordic region, and most certainly Finland. In terms of expectations for a good life, lagom encourages contentment with life’s bare necessities. If you already have those, you have nothing to complain about. Ergo, you are happy.

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But is this really what we mean by happiness? If it is, maybe American parents should stop encouraging their kids to aim so high and suggest more realistic goals: “One day, sweet Riley, you too can be the president … of the homeowners’ association.” I am not sure I agree. If that’s happiness, count me out. My definition of happiness includes joy, love, and meaningful engagement with the people around me. The reason why I decided to stay here in the United States, despite a couple of efforts to return to Finland, is because I like it when people smile, laugh, and, yes, even talk to their neighbors. It makes me happy.

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