Why Are Nordic Countries the Happiest?

The Nordic countries, particularly Finland and Denmark, consistently rank as the happiest countries in the world according to the World Happiness Report. They have cracked the formula for happiness by focusing on a good balance of life rather than pursuing extreme wealth. Factors such as strong social support, generous parental leave, free education and healthcare, and a sense of personal freedom contribute to their citizens‘ overall well-being. While there are challenges such as stress and mental health issues, these countries prioritize creating a comfortable and cozy atmosphere (known as hygge) and maintaining a good work-life balance. The Nordic societies‘ emphasis on trust, equality, and providing basic services for all contribute to their high levels of happiness.

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Key Insights:

  • The Nordic countries, including Finland and Denmark, consistently rank as the happiest countries in the world according to the World Happiness Report.
  • Happiness in these countries is attributed to a balanced life, strong social support systems, and a focus on relationships.
  • Factors such as GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, social support, generosity, and absence of corruption contribute to overall life satisfaction.
  • Achieving a balance between work and personal life is essential in the Nordic countries, with shorter work hours and generous parental leave policies.
  • Free education, healthcare, and access to public services further contribute to happiness in these countries.
  • Money does play a role in happiness, but beyond a certain income level, additional wealth does not significantly impact life satisfaction.
  • The concepts of hygge (coziness) in Denmark and sauna in Finland are integral to their cultures and contribute to overall well-being.
  • Homogeneity and population size do not necessarily determine happiness, as countries with diverse populations may also rank high in happiness.
  • Mental health and stress management are important aspects of happiness, with efforts made in Nordic countries to address these issues.
  • Generosity, trust in the government, and a sense of community contribute to overall happiness in these countries.


What makes me happy is… I think I was definitely born happy, and then life happens. I’m getting a bit emotional here. I feel very happy. Very happy. I’m happier now than when I lived in New York and I got paid probably twice as much in New York as I do here. Our happiness is kind of like quiet happiness, kind of a stillness.

What does it take to be happy? The Nordic countries seem to have it all figured out. Finland and Denmark have consistently topped the United Nations‘ most prestigious index, the World Happiness Report, in all six areas of life satisfaction. How have they cracked the formula? And, are the people they are really the happiest?

The United Nations just named the happiest place on Earth. It is not Disneyworld. It’s Finland. In 2019, the World Happiness Report named Finland the happiest country in the world for the second year in a row. Denmark came in second place after claiming the top slot in 2013 and 2016. Year after year, Nordic countries like Norway, Iceland and Sweden round out the top of the list.

Enter Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia and the co-editor of the World Happiness Report. What do those countries have? They have a high level of prosperity, to be sure, but they’re not the richest countries in the world by any means. The idea is a good balance of life. You don’t have to get super rich to be happy, they believe. In fact, if someone’s super rich, they, look, what’s wrong with that person? So they’re not societies that are aiming for all of the effort and time to becoming gazillionaires. They’re looking for a good balance of life and the results are extremely positive.

The annual happiness ranking began in 2012, but we can trace measuring happiness back to 1971. It came in the inspiration of the country of Bhutan, a country in the Himalayas that many people know for its innovation of attempting to measure gross national happiness. Globally, a standard for measuring success and productivity is gross national product. Bhutan had the bright idea of trying to measure happiness. Measuring happiness is a fairly complicated business. First of all, we need to understand what happiness means. It means the satisfaction with the way one’s life is going. It’s not primarily a measure of whether one laughed or smiled yesterday, but how one feels about the course of one’s life.

Meet Meik Wiking, happiness researcher and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark. There is a lot of factors that impact happiness, everything from biology to income levels to the city they live in. But I think the best predictor we see in the data of whether people are happy or not is whether they’re satisfied or happy with their relationships. So, do we have somebody we can rely on in times of need? Do we have somebody we can share our hopes and worries with?

These six categories help account for the differences in life satisfaction around the world. GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, social support, generosity, and absence of corruption. On average, richer countries are happier. On average, richer people are happier. But, once we get to a certain level of income, an additional $100 a month is not going to impact how people feel about their lives. So, with money, like with everything else, we see diminishing marginal return. And I don’t know why I’m bringing up this quote, because it’s extremely corny, but there is a Kanye West song in which he says that, „Having money is not everything. Not having it is.“ And I do think that’s true in the sense that when you don’t have it, it’s all you worry about. And when you do have money, you can actually worry about other stuff.

Happiness also seems like this elusive thing. We have two words for happiness in Danish. So we have „lykke,“ which is the elusive thing. The thing you experience once every blue moon. And then we have to be „glad,“ like the word glad, which is different because it’s more down to Earth and you can be glad despite the fact that it’s not anything special, it’s no special day. Lykke seems like this elusive thing that you can’t quite chase. To be glad is more like our mindset. So I feel more like I choose to be glad at times rather than sort of trying to chase happiness because that seems like it’s never going to happen that way.

Maria lives in Helsinki with her husband, Duke, and her 2-year-old son, Luka. Woah! Wow! Ah, hi! Yeah! There it is. There it is, you little monster. Finland is the best place to have kids. When you go give birth, it’s almost free. We stayed in the hospital three full days as a family. We had our own family room and we got like meals and support and help and everything. And the bill was about €300 in the end. It’s basically like living in a hotel.

In Finland, new mothers receive a free baby box jam-packed with 63 items to help with the baby’s first year. You don’t have to buy anything for the first two, three months. Of course, diapers and stuff like that, but basically. And also, you can actually put your baby to sleep in that box. Our baby actually, Luka slept in the box for the first month. Finland, along with the other Nordic countries, offers generous parental leave. Anu Partanen, author of „The Nordic Theory of Everything,“ spent 10 years as a journalist in the U.S. before returning to her home country, Finland. She’s also a mother. In Finland, you get 10 months of paid parental leave, out of which about four months is set aside for the mother and you start it before the baby is born and then father can keep nine weeks. Typically, both parents stay home for the first three weeks. They share the rest of the time until the baby is nine months old. A parent can even stay home until the child is 3 years old and keep his or her job. However, the stipend is much smaller.

Another determinant of well-being is one’s sense of personal freedom to make important life choices. Can you shape your life the way you want? Christina was unhappy at her job in advertising and took an eight-month break. Social security is also something I think is very important. What I did didn’t make me happy and it didn’t let me have that work-life balance that we cherish so much here. And so we have a system that made it possible for me to quit my job and have some thinking time and figure out, you know, what’s my next step in life. Christina received about $2,000 a month from the Danish government while she was unemployed. She is now in school to become a painter. Her tuition is covered and she receives an educational stipend of about $1,000 a month.

Two of the biggest perks of life in Denmark and Finland are free education and free health care. Income taxes are not at all as high in the Nordic countries that Americans tend to think. However, overall, it is completely true that the Nordic countries collect more taxes in general than the United States does. In Finland and the Nordic countries, there are higher taxes on consumption, like eating in restaurants and buying jeans. But the thing that I think a lot of Americans forget is that the Nordic people are happy to pay those taxes because they get services in return. Day care, great public education. It includes your college tuition, free. It includes healthcare, all of those are included in your taxes.

When the news hit that Finland is the happiest country in the world, I think most people kind of reacted to it, like, what are they talking about? We don’t think of ourselves as very happy because it’s dark and gloomy in the winter and whatever. It’s easier for Finns and Danes to shape their lives because the government supports so many of their basic needs. The American dream is probably more alive in Denmark. The perception of freedom is probably also a little bit different. It seems like in the U.S. the feeling is you have to be protected from the government and you have to have freedom from the government. I think in Denmark the sense is that the government protects you. People trust other people. You leave a bag in a restaurant in Finland, you’re pretty sure you’re going to make it back and the money is still there. People even leave babies parked in strollers outside coffee shops while they run errands. And I think partly the Nordic society cultivates that trust simply by providing basic services for everyone. So there’s much less poverty, much less feeling of injustice, inequality, crime. People get the education they need. They can have a job. They don’t have to struggle in life as much. There isn’t super wealth and there’s absolutely no super poverty. Everybody participates. It turns out it leads to a wonderful kind of life and one that is expressed, year after year, as making these countries the happiest countries in the world.

Monica and Alex are expats who live in Copenhagen with their two teenagers. Alex is originally from the UK and Monica is originally from New York. What else do you need? The olive oil, and then the balsamic vinegar. Where’s the bowl? We originally came here expecting to stay only three years, but it was so good, we’ve been here nine now. It’s also safe. And this comes back to the community and the trust. We can let our kids go out and we do not have to sit here being really worried that, are they going to come back? Are they safe where they’re going? Do we have to go pick them up? You still worry, of course, but it’s just very different. There’s still this very strong sense of family, friends, community.

Balance is the formula for happiness. Aristotle had it right when he launched the study of happiness 2,300 years ago. According to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, good behavior lies between two vices, excess and deficiency. People who pursue only money and say, „I’ll be happier the richer I am,“ turn out to be less happy. I do think having nice surroundings is a part of happiness. But I also think it needs to be linked with something that sort of resonates with you on a deeper level. Having nice surroundings and having a lot of money and being in a five-star hotel in Las Vegas doesn’t make you happy at all. So I think it needs to have that balance.

Cue the classic Nordic work-life balance. Rich Perusi, former New Yorker, has been living in Copenhagen for seven years. People stay pretty tight to a 9 to 5 workday. But I do think that we get as much done in a short period of time here as we were doing in longer times working in New York. One of the comments we actually heard when we first came here was a Dane saying, when she saw someone working late, „Are they doing it because they can’t get their work done? Is there something wrong with them?“ Versus, „Are they just trying to get ahead in working?“ There is a sense that, yes, work’s important and you need to get your work done to a high quality, but you also need to make sure it’s balanced appropriately.

Saara Alhopuro is a diplomat who has shaped her work schedule to make time for her passion. So, I actually need to go to my physical workplace only three days a week. So then the rest of the time I can spend here in the middle of nature. When I walk in the forest, I walk there very quietly, paying attention to all the small details and all the colors. Very slowly, and I try to spot all the small, small details. And I completely lose the track of time. Usually, I spend about five to six hours picking mushrooms.

People don’t make as much money in the Nordic countries as they do in the U.S. So, it’s not really about how much you make. You don’t have to make as much to get the same quality of life as you would in the United States. So, if we look at the dimension called life satisfaction, we can see that that money does matter for well-being and happiness. But I mean, on average, richer countries are happier. On average, richer people are happier. But, the mechanism here is being without money is a cause of unhappiness.

Not everyone likes to talk about money either. In Finland, it’s been this kind of rule that you don’t talk about money that much, at least like my parents basically wouldn’t tell me how much they made, for example, if I would ask as a kid. It would be considered bragging if you would tell about how much you make, etc.

People are happier when they are generous and when they feel that the society that they’re in is a generous society. And then we find people want to live in places with decent government. If government is corrupt, if leaders are bizarre or autocratic or corrupt, the society is unhappy. In 2019, Finland elected the world’s youngest-serving prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin. Danes are among the happiest people in the world, but they’re not necessarily the friendliest. Lars AP, author of „F***ing Flink“ and founder of the movement of the same name, wants to change that. So F***ing Flink is a national movement. Our prime goal is to take Danes that are among the happiest people in the world, but also being the friendliest people in the world. Why are we doing this? Well, because friendliness and positive human interaction means so much to us. Science shows us that. And so we’re trying to do that in all sectors, in all realms that we can think of.

Finland and Denmark both have populations of less than 6 million people. The U.S. has over 330 million people. The Nordic countries are pretty homogeneous, too. Do population size and diversity affect happiness? A lot of countries with relatively homogeneous populations, similarities among people ethnically or in terms of religion and so on, are not very happy. So it’s no guarantee. And on the other hand, it’s possible to have a lot of diversity and more happiness.

Our northern neighbor in the United States, Canada, ranks higher. Yeah, I think Finland is probably one of the most homogenous countries in Europe. Still, we have recently had quite a lot of immigration. But I would say that still it is fairly homogenous. I think it’s funny because I kind of always, I guess, assumed that Danish society was kind of diverse. But then we went to see Dave Chappelle’s show here in Copenhagen and both him and the guy who he had with him as support kind of opened their show saying, „Denmark is so white.“ And I never really thought about that before. But then, ever since that show, I just think about it all the time.

We’ve been having immigration for hundreds of years from all over Europe. I mean, in the 70s, we had a lot of people from Turkey coming up, from from Vietnam. And we had people from Yugoslavia in the 90s. And Denmark has remained happy throughout that period.

The 2018 World Happiness Report explores happiness among natives and immigrants. It shows that when immigrants are happy, the countries are, too. But if the country is already happy, new immigrants will experience increased happiness. It shouldn’t undermine happiness in the Nordic countries that there are influx of people born abroad.

There’s also a dark side to happiness. Like in Denmark, one of the biggest epidemics right now is stress and people being sick with stress and having to leave their jobs. And people outside of Denmark didn’t really understand what that meant, like, „What do you mean stress leave?“ But it might be that expectation to have a work-life balance here that stresses people out. That you both have to work, but you also have to take care of your family. You also have to be social with your friends. You also have to, you know, do this self-realization thing, hobbies and traveling. And there’s so much you have to do in the same amount of hours, whereas maybe in New York or other places, you know that you’re going to work to 10 every day so you don’t expect to have the same balance, you know?

It can be hard for outsiders to break into the Nordic cultures. The Danes have such tight-knit friend and family groups. It’s not very natural for them to just include people, new people into their groups. It is a little harder to come in from the outside to sort of become part of that group. We’ve had some great Danish friends, some met at work, but it is harder, I think, from that on that side, compared to the UK and the U.S. in terms of developing friendships.

There can be serious side effects to maintaining high levels of happiness. Within the states, if you look at the level of life satisfaction, the higher the life satisfaction actually also the slightly higher the level of suicide rates. And the theory here is that it might be more difficult to be unhappy in an otherwise happy society because it creates a stronger contrast to how you are feeling if you are surrounded by very happy people.

So Denmark actually used to have really high suicide rates. So in 1980, we had suicide rates of around 40 per 100,000, which was I think some of the highest in the world. Now, fortunately, it’s around 25% of that, so it’s around 10 per 100,000. South Korea and Lithuania have some of the highest suicide rates in the OECD as of 2017. So fortunately, suicide rates have been reduced a lot in Denmark. And also in Finland, there’s also been a great reduction over the past two decades. But still, it’s not zero. So we still need to reduce that even further.

Despite mental health challenges, a big part of Finnish culture focuses on overall well-being. Sauna is a sacred thing for Finns. I have like so many good memories about having these sauna moments with my family. Sauna is something that I suppose you kind of have to like and love as a Finn.

As of 2018, there were 5.5 million people living in Finland and around 2.3 million saunas. My grandmother always used to tell us kids that we can’t fight in the sauna because then we would risk angering the sauna elf. And there’s even a sauna in the government of Finland, where they say that they make some of the most important political compromises because you’re culturally not allowed to fight in the sauna.

Danes have mastered the art of comfort and coziness through hygge. I think the best short definition of what hygge is the art of creating a nice atmosphere. And of course, that is something that happens everywhere. But what is uniquely Danish is we have a word that describes that situation. You can curl up in a couch and read a good book and have good music on and just be in a hyggekrog, it actually means a hygge corner of your room.

There’s a social component to hygge which I think is really important. Hygge seeps everywhere throughout the country, from cozy drinks to warm lighting. So one concrete manifestation of hygge is the focus on lighting. The rule of thumb is the warmer, the light, the more hyggelig the lights. So Danes love candles.

So how does hygge contribute to happiness? So happiness is both having a strong sense of purpose in life. It’s also experiencing moments of pleasure on a daily basis. It’s also feeling satisfied with life overall. So, hygge, is this element in our daily lives where we experience comfort and pleasure and togetherness and hopefully over time that accumulates also to a higher sense of life satisfaction.

Another way Denmark and Finland support their citizens? Paid annual vacation. So in all Nordic countries, everybody has a right to paid annual vacation. It varies a little by country, but in Finland, for example, it’s typically, after you work one year for the same employer, it’s four weeks in the summer and one week in the winter and everybody gets this. I actually heard a statistic. It’s something like, when Americans go home after work October 27, you guys have worked as much as Danes will work for the entire year. But I actually think that taking a little more time off also makes you a lot more productive.

In Finland, it’s traditional to spend the summer in a summer cottage or mökki. We did have a summer house was when I was little. It was something that my grandfather built himself during the 60s I think. And we used to go ther like all the time when I was small. A week doesn’t go past during the summer when I’m not thinking like, „Oh, I wish we still had it.“ Traditionally, the mökkis wouldn’t have necessarily electricity or running water. And usually, most mökkis come with a lake or the Baltic Sea. You can go to your sauna and have a dip in the water.

So in a Nordic country, the vacation time also serves families that if the parents stagger their vacations a bit, they can handle much easier the summer vacations for their children. And of course, then the family can spend time together.

Maybe Finnish happiness is more like inside, you know. It’s like inner peace, or something like that. It’s not so open. It’s like balance. It’s more balanced, I think. So, ready!

Ultimately, happiness is relative. If you think you are having more sex than your neighbor, then you’re happier. We are social beings. We compare ourselves to each other. So there are social comparisons in salary in terms of the houses and how successful we believe we are, but also in terms of sex.

So what’s one small way we can be happier today? For me, something that I’ve done which has made me happier is exercise. I think the saying no, or being a tiny bit more selfish can make you happy. One step to improve your sense of happiness is go first. You’re walking down the street, someone else comes walking towards you. It might be just a smile. It might be just looking the other person in the eye, whatever it is. But go first with that, because you can’t expect that the other person is gonna do it. Don’t be reactive, go first.

In Denmark, we sometimes talk about the ABC for mental health. If you want to boost your mood, three sort of universal tips is doing something active, doing something together with other people and doing something meaningful. So, gather a group of friends, go for a walk. That could be something that could boost your mood.

Predicting the future on this is very difficult, unfortunately. Where will the U.S. be? It could be even worse than now. It could be much better than now. It’s a matter of actually making choices for a better direction for the country and one that is not guided by fear and hate, but one that is guided by a sense of community and the common good.