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June, 2018

When you’re not the happiest

In recent years, the Nordic countries have jostled among themselves for the top spots of several happiness surveys. According to the UN’s World Happiness Report and the OECD’s Better Life Index, all the Nordic countries are among the top ten happiest nations in 2018. Without beating about the bush, the Nordic Region offers most people a very good quality of life.

Researchers believe that we have the Nordic welfare model to thank for this, which sets out the framework for a good life in the region. Our social security net makes people feel at ease. Free education provides people with freedom and opportunities. A sensible balance between work and leisure gives us the opportunity to thrive in both arenas.

But a new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers breaks the situation down to reveal that happiness is unevenly distributed. Although the Nordic Region is happier than other regions in the world, this doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. Increasing numbers of people say that they are miserable or unhappy. In fact, 12.3 percent of the Nordic population say so. Most concerning is that young adults aged 18 to 23 and those aged 80 and over are most unhappy. We have to address this.

The report outlines five key circumstances most associated with unhappiness and a lower quality of life. These are poor general health, poor mental health, income inequality, unemployment, and lack of social community.

Unhappiness is most affected by our physical and mental health. The percentage of young people who feel depressed varies between the Nordic countries, but the overall pattern is that young women feel depressed more often than young men. Similarly, we can see that poor mental health is an increasing problem among young men and women.

How we feel also depends a lot on our employment, or lack thereof. One in three unemployed people in the Nordic countries are unhappy, which is much higher than among those in work.

The social consequence of this is that a growing group of people feel miserable. This, in turn, skews sickness absence figures, productivity, and use of welfare services. Furthermore, it fosters mistrust. Inequalities in well-being are heavily associated with mistrust. If inequalities grow, this can undermine trust between people which, in turn, affects our sense of community.

A society free of unhappiness and misery is a utopia. Nor is it desirable. Everyone will have phases in life in which they do not feel happy. And the reasons why we feel unhappy or miserable are unique to each person. Quality of life is about having the motivation to tackle what life throws at us. We accumulate this motivation through positive relationships with others, meaningful activity, and support from those around us.

Yet circumstances and similarities between the Nordic countries indicate that there are some social structures that adversely affect our well-being which, in turn, raises some questions for public debate. What can we, as a community, do for people who do not enjoy a good quality of life? What is the role of the public sector? What is the role of civil society? And how can society’s resources be best used? These questions need to be discussed. Nobody benefits from so many people being stuck in happiness’s shadow.

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