When the Nordic Happiness is Right for You

Every year, in the weird season between winter and spring, the same thing happens: the UN Happiness Report is released. Every year here in the Northern edge of Europe we delight ourselves in discussing its outcomes. It looks like the report is released in the month of March especially for our part of the world: while other places start watching spring signs, we still walk the icy streets, covered in winter layers, wondering if the meters of snow will ever melt this year. And our only novelty and a topic for discussion is this: who is the world’s happiest country this year? Because it is us. Or our neighbors.

The first place in the happy ranking was occupied by Denmark for so many years that everyone just had to give up. But last year Norway suddenly squeezed in to be the champion. As we shrugged from the snow and sleet in April and pulled on our last resources of patience, we looked at each other with disbelief and amusement: look, we live in the world’s happiest country, what a surprise! The top five was occupied by our Nordic neighbors: Denmark, Iceland and even Finland, with one non-Nordic country (what was that again?) miraculously making its way into the top. This year Norway was moved to the second place, but by whom? By Finland, ladies and gentlemen! I felt like laughing hysterically. The positions reshuffle but you would find the same countries in the top. It looks like the Nordics are really better than the rest of the world: at least, at answering those surveys 🙂

the Northern lights

So, my first (conspiracy) theory is that the report is released to cheer up the Northern population during the long late-winter season (which in other places is called early spring). The argument may be fun, but not heavy enough. That’s why I’ve got my second (conspiracy) theory 🙂 It goes like this. In the post-industrial societies, where the production of goods has been moved overseas, the bigger role will be played by the human capital and the cities will fight for this resource. We can all admit that vibrant cities like New York, Paris and London will always be able to attract the young and talented, while others have to be more creative to get the flow of human capital. The aging population of Europe places also a problem for many countries. In this light, the results of Happiness Report are the means of marketing for the Nordic countries. They also need the young and hopeful, but how would they attract them? Crowding the different reports is a good way to promote little countries in the North that tend to be fast forgotten in the big scheme of things.

Measuring happiness, though, is such an ungrateful job. At times my own happiness is so fluid and it is so hard to define when I am happy and when not. So how do you pinpoint the happiness level of a society? Reading the book “The almost nearly perfect people” by M. Booth gave me some insights into how the happiness is measured. In the base of this research lies the idea that the society with less differences is better for its people: less stress, less depression, less envy, thus less crime and better health. In this perspective, it is easy to understand why Scandinavia (and the Nordics) tend to win year after year. It is a place of little countries that value equality over everything and work hard for diminishing social differences. But is it all to happiness?

Let’s be honest, happiness can be defined in so many terms. For some, the family life and a big family circle is the source to happiness. Well then, while Scandinavia is a good place for mothers and children, it is also quite a lonely place, topping many statistics on loneliness. For others again, happiness is the vibrant life, high energy and exciting opportunities. If this were the base for the happiness research you would find the Nordics somewhere very low, because while it is safe and stable here, let’s be honest, it is kind of boring also.

Another example of happiness is given in “The almost nearly perfect people” in the quote of a Danish guy who said: “We have low expectations and we have them met – this is the happiness for the Danes. To be content with one’s lot”. Or as the author cites The Economist in their Nordic special edition:

“Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born… but only if you are average. If you are averagely talented, have average ambitions, average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first”.

That was a refreshing saying (after all the happiness reports and the articles on hygge :)) that captured a great measure of my sentiment which has been living in me without finding its expression in words.

In other words, happiness is a different thing for everyone. And while the researchers put their ideas into the base of what happiness in society may look like (most equality, least differences) it may differ from your personal idea of happiness. If you want to wear clothes that scream “look at me!”, signal your wealth or eccentricity, curate excellence in some way, then there is a slight possibility that you will not find yourself happy in the society that abhors the word “elite”, despises the attempts of being the best, and appreciates conformity and assimilation before integration.   So, what I propose is that we all define what happiness is for each of us – and if you want to change places, find the one that resonates with your definition of happiness. While I will write a list of things that can make you happy in Norway – so that you can compare your happiness list against mine (especially, if you are thinking of moving to the Nordic region).

in my part of Norway

When Norway can be the perfect place for you.

  • If you like winter. No, if you love winter. Above every other season. Not in like: “I don’t mind winter, but I prefer summer”. No, no, with that attitude head for another part of the world. Because Norway=winter. Cold and dark. Dark and cold. I thought also I didn’t mind winter (after all, I come from Ukraine, and this is just so close to Siberia, hehe). But I found myself waiting till winter is over, trying to forget about it in the salsa parties. This attitude will not carry you through for a long time. You have to like winter, to like the snow and the winter activities.

I once was talking to a Kenyan guy who liked spending a Sunday cross-country-skiing for 80 km. This is a right way to appreciate winter. If you love spending a day out in the woods or in the mountains, sweating on your skis or a snowboard, eating your lunchbox in some cabin or just in the snow, then you will be all right here. If you think that you will go all hygge and drink liters of tea while reading books, I must warn you that: 1) you must really looove tea and books so much, otherwise you will hate that too; 2) you can end the season rolling like a dougnut, because so much tea (often accompanied with cookies or sweets) during six months of the year is not good for you.

  • If you enjoy being in your own company. A lot.

As I’ve mentioned, Norway tops the world’s statistics on loneliness. And yes, I have friends who seem to know thousands of people and never spend a weekend on their own, but this is more an exception than a rule in this country. You may experience difficulties making friends with the locals. Even the locals face the same problems when changing places, so don’t take it personally. It is not because you are foreigner, and no, they are not hostile to you, they are just this way, also to each other. You may experience difficulties meeting new people as it is not accepted to start a chat with strangers in the public spaces, others than bars on a Friday night (but then those strangers are not looking for friendships either).

walk by the river
  • If your dream is to build a home and raise kids. Norway is one of the best countries to be a mother or a child in, you know that already. If your life project, however, is living a vagabond life, well, then Norway is good just for a period. Everything seems to be created for families. The recent newspaper announced that in the forming of the city budget the families have won: meaning, that the great part is allocated for the children and family services. Any place you go, a museum, library or a theatre, there will be activities for children, so you will always find something to do on a boring Sunday when the city seems dead. Sometimes I want to ask: what about us, free-spirited cosmopolite crowd who doesn’t have children? Are there any resources allocated to our needs? Or do we have to catch a flight to London or Barcelona every time we are hungry for some fun?

As my friend said during a concert of Enrique Iglesias in Oslo: “Every time I go to a similar event, I meet the whole Russian community and the whole Ukrainian community. Because it is not enough for us here. Oslo is so boring” (I sometimes repeat this phrase with my sweet Slavic accent: “It is not enough for us here”).

  • If you prefer nature to culture. As Michael Booth says in the mentioned book: “Norwegians seem to be more connected to nature, than to culture”. The nature will be here in loads. You just take the subway to the last station and you can get lost in the woods for hours (I did it. Getting lost on a December afternoon on an icy path in the woods. And then it got dark. But it all ended well). Even living in the big city like Oslo you will have an easy access to nature: the parks, the river, the lakes and the woods at the outskirts of the city. If traveling around Norway to see its stunning nature is expensive for you (as it was for me), you can always hike or bike around the place you live.

While the culture…hmm, well, there will be some. But better not to count on that too much. Especially if you come from a big city vibrating with life. See again the previous point and the quote “It is not enough for us here” 🙂 Though, if you work for that, you can build your cultural life, volunteering at festivals, keeping your head up for parties and events. I don’t know for the rest of the country but Oslo seems full of small events. It doesn’t feel as lively as Hamburg where I was lucky to live for a period, but still things keep on moving here. And, honestly, I would not live in any other part of Norway, but I am an urban animal after all. If your idea of happiness is being closer to the nature, and you don’t care a lot about high vibrations of the city life, this country is for you. Peaceful and quiet. If you like stillness and silence, it is also a good place for you.

After living (and struggling) for many years in the North, I have come to realize: you cannot ask for something that is not there. Or – you can ask and wait, but why waste your energy and time? You have two options: either you create the thing you want – or you accept it as it is. You’d better try to take the best out of everything you get. You can also try to add some value and be creative with what you get. But if your values are totally different from those of the given place – you’d better go and find a place that resonates more with your values. Because nothing is more stupid than living with the Eskimos and asking for the palm trees. Sorry, they don’t have it. Go ask some other place.  In the end, there is no place that is good or bad in its essence. It can only be right or wrong for you. Agree or disagree?

May you be happy in any place you are in – and may you have the freedom to choose your places!

let’s sit down and enjoy some coffee

15 thoughts on “When the Nordic Happiness is Right for You

    • I was also surprised, taking into the consideration the high rates of alcoholism and suicide levels in Finland. To me they are more important factors than language tests, hehe. it mostly can be broken down to the wealth redistribution. the Nordics rule on that one. Somehow it is connected to happiness, in the researchers’ heads. not in mine, however 🙂

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  1. How would you define happiness? I think wealth redistribution is important, it seems like it would make everyone more equal. The income inequality here in the States is horrible and only getting worse. Maybe it will lead to some kind of revolution/movement, maybe it won’t. But I no longer believe in the American Dream.

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    • For me happiness is an energy flow. When you have goals and have energy for your goals and see yourself moving there – this is happiness for me. As also balance and being content with what you have. This is my personal definition, on a micro level. I don’t dare to define what is happiness on the macro level.

      I think, equality is a good thing for society bc there is less stress and envy, people feel that the life is fair and they can achieve what they want just like others around them. But let’s not forget that it works in a country of only 5 million people – which has maybe the richest oil fond. 100 years ago Norway was the poorest in Europe. Were they as happy then, with the same equality? Difficult to say, no UN reports of that time. But we know that they emigrated in hundreds to USA. Maybe, not so happy after all.
      It is difficult to compare countries like Norway and USA. In the American context it is more a city than a country. Norwegians were good at distributing the wealth when they got it, but then again, theirs was a little society of farmers and fishermen, with high levels of trust and social cohesion. Russia has also oil and gas – and 120 million people, and a vast territory, and like US it is an empire with its own culture, tradition of administration and military spending. So it’s not easy to try a Norwegian model on such huge countries like USA. Norway has less concerns, maybe, so they can go all peacemaking and thinking green (while pumping out and selling the product that pollutes the most).

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  2. “Because nothing is more stupid than living with the Eskimos and asking for the palm trees.”
    Perfectly said! Every upside has its downsides. Those rankings of happiest countries have always struck me as a bit off, for these very reasons. Happiness is so subjective, how can we really gauge the happiness of millions of people as one unit? But I think your conspiracy theory is right–it’s really a PR ploy by the Nordic countries 😉

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    • I remember some 10 years ago my friend was telling me that the most happiest countries were the poor ones with tight family bonds and religion. She was like: “they have people and meaning in their lives, so of course”. It is all before we got obsessed with UN happiness reports))) maybe, they have changed the questionnaires, maybe, Nordics stepped in, haha. Or maybe she was wrong, my friend. But since then we have lost our explanations. How can the North be so happy? With their suicide rates (Finland), anti-depressants consumption (Denmark and Iceland being the world leaders), plus that climate? How??? And why no one is still moving in here in bunches?))
      It was refreshing to know what was put in the base of that research. Ah, equality, all right. That makes sense. For me it is still a conspiracy theory 😆
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  3. Hehee I laughed out loud at the rolling around like a doughnut part (hygge, sooo much tea…) 😂And I also loved your “Northern lights” photo, heheh! That’s the only kind of Northern lights I’ve seen, in my total of 27 years here (including my teens). Wow, I’ve been here way too long.
    “Because nothing is more stupid than living with the Eskimos and asking for the palm trees.” “In the end, there is no place that is good or bad in its essence. It can only be right or wrong for you.” “May you have the freedom to choose your places!”
    → I do agree that there is nothing bad about living in the Nordics, not at all!! But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it’s not mine. And yes, it’s silly to wish for something else and stay put, but sometime’s it’s not that simple to just leave – like you said, you need to have freedom to move. As I age, I’ve noticed I care more and more about seeing my family regularly, and they live in my town. When I was young, single and wild, I just thought of myself and I was free to do anything. But thinking of other people is also a choice. When I came back here from France, I was for the first years quite ok being here, because I never thought it was permanent. I was here of my own choice and it felt very different to being forced to be here (like when I was a teenager and too young to do anything about it). But now all of a sudden I’ve gotten that trapped feeling again and it changes the way I feel about everything!
    Great post and good points here, Marina! I really do feel like I could have written this myself, I am so on the same page as you!!!

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    • Thank you for adding your Nordic perspective, Snow! It always helps when you know there is someone sharing your feeling and so you are not weird anymore, no? 😆
      I believe that there is no paradise on Earth and every perfect picture place has its shadow side. I also believe that personal happiness is more about energy and balance and own responsibility for one’s inner state. So the places are not to blame. But I also believe that places have energy which can resonate with us – or not. And since we are all different, some will love living in the North, while others not. And some will hate living in the South, while others not. So some are perfectly content with their place, while others… keep searching.
      And like you say, your feelings and attitude may change. There is dynamics to every relationship, so why not to your place too? It also has its highs and lows. Sounds like you are passing through your low now in your love story with Finland 😆. And as you say, with more people in your life you tend to take different choices than when you have just yourself.
      And I hope we will not roll like doughnuts! We have become heroes of our existence 😆😆

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  4. Hello Marina;

    You have become a very good writer, and I relished in your thoughtful and searching approach.

    I will submit that the UN Happiness report is based on an incompetent method. Happiness is not some static state, measured by polls of how people say they feel about themselves. It’s a dynamic concept.

    The U.S, Delcaration of Independence states three inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Some people wanted it to be Life , Liberty, and Property. What’s the difference?

    The pursuit of happiness implies a form of government where one does not just ” fit in”, but is allowed and encouraged to develop their capabilities, not just to enjoy material success, but to make a difference in this world.

    It derives from the earlier idea of pleasure in Thomas More’s Utopia:

    “Utopians make a distinction between true and counterfeit pleasure. True pleasure involves any movement of body or mind in which a person takes a natural delight, such as reflecting on true knowledge, eating well, or exercising. Counterfeit pleasures are those sensations that are not naturally delightful, but that distorted desires have tricked people into believing they pleasurable. Examples of such counterfeit pleasures are pride in appearance, wealth, or honorific titles. Pursuit of these counterfeit pleasures often interfere with pursuit of true pleasures, and so Utopians do everything in their power to root counterfeit pleasures out of their society.”

    Can the UN Happiness report distinguish true from counterfeit pleasures?

    I visited Iceland, and loved it. It seemed a very happy place. But I wonder if it would still seem so if it were my home.

    Thanks again for your beautiful writing.

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    • Hi Fred! Good to see you here. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
      I like how you bind together the U.S. Declaration to the idea of happiness. I haven’t read “Utopia” and I have to discover that this discussion of pleasure sounds actual for our times (maybe, I should read it :)). I have thought a lot of what good life is, and the idea of pleasure is important to it. Good life is the one you enjoy and that gives you pleasure. But the grounds for that pleasure can be so different and can produce different kind of pleasure. It is lovely that already Thomas More did this analysis – and I agree with him. Especially in our times (or has it always been like that?) when the modern culture seems to be built around his idea of counterfeit pleasure. I wonder what will survive as the example of our times’ culture? The Kardashians? )) To me it seems kind of decadent culture, but well well.

      I have read that UN happiness is based on so-called Gini coefficient, measuring economic redistribution and equality in a country. And from this point of view the Nordics always win. So it is wealth redefined. It is not “pride in appearance” but more or less equal levels of wealth and little divides inside of the country. It is a good thing, but for me it goes too far to call it happiness on a society level. But maybe, I am wrong. It is good to be safe and feel economical equality, however, it is not the top of the needs pyramide, but it’s base. A safe base that gives one’s opportunity for self-realization (Thomas More again). Somehow, I find Scandinavia is a better place for providing safety than plenty of opportunities and self-realization. They provide good base, and on it we can base as we want, which is great. But the plenty of opportunities…I don’t know. In such a small and conformist society (with high degrees of protectionism and nepotism) talking about great opportunities… maybe, I don’t see them myself. But I just don’t see that here.

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  5. Damn, it seems I lost an unposted comment. :p I knew it was long and funny but can’t remember it all now. I love the spark and funk and cheekiness of this post. The freedom is the key. (Northern lights and the last photo say it best. :D)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, so sorry for that! I trust that it was long and funny 🙂
      The freedom is truly the key. And I learn to be cheeky in this snowy landscape, so thank you for that word 🙂 (yesterday we went for a walk in the woods, and guess what we saw? A lot of snow still)

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  6. This is such a lovely post, Marina. Thank you for letting me discover your blog by visiting mine. I totally agree with you on happiness being a very subjective term. We usually hear that people from poorer countries are often happier due to the bond between people, their culture and a different way of life e.g not as materially focused as Western societies. So I will have to agree with your conspiracy theories about these surveys wanting to cheer up Nordic people happy hehe. I lived in Finland for 2.5 years and the weather and the society were quite hard to get used to. It seemed that there were no strong/close bonds between people and for someone coming from Asia, this was shocking.
    I love your writing on why some people might like the life in Norway hehe. I have actually met a few people who prefer long, cold winters over summers, outdoor activities during winter etc. Then there’s no doubt that the Nordic societies are apt for people who love nature, outdoors, quiet and individualistic societies etc. I definitely prefer warmer weather over colder, and the almost 8 months long winters of Finland really made me look forward to the short, fun summers when I was living there.

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    • Thank you for a warm feedback, Pooja! The pleasure is all mine 🙂
      And it is fun to find one more blogger with the Nordic experience 🙂 Just today I was listening to a podcast where the yoga and meditation teacher from USA said that in India the life is more chaotic, but people seem to be happier. He said: “here in the West there is more order and rules, but more inner turmoil. There it seems more chaos on the outside, but more peace on the inside”. I thought, those were the wonderful words about happiness. You are from India, right? Would you agree with his words?
      And I can imagine your shock in Finland, which is like the most opposite of India, with its high level of individualism, cold culture and cold climate. I believe this Nordic happiness must feel that happy only for the Nordic people and those like them 🙂 It is so mysterious to the rest))) And still it is not convincing, since no crowds come here to share in this happiness, haha. And even Norwegian retirees go to Spain. They can live here, these people, but they know where they can really chill 🙂 There they drink beer in the sun and even talk to their neighbors.
      Even more us, foreigners, it is hard getting used to this kind of happiness. But to be honest, I appreciate some individualism and I got used to it. I didn’t enjoy kind of collectivism in Ukraine where every neighbor asked me if I got married, how much I earn, etc. So I am looking for some kind of balance. I hope it can be achieved both internally and externally, that is why I am still considering other countries. Are you too? Or would you like to settle some place?

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  7. This is a truly fascinating discussion. I would submit that happiness isn’t at all about “things” even though no one can argue that struggles for our most basic needs surely make life much harder. I don’t view happiness as a single straight line, but as a series of threads in many different directions. There are moments of happiness (e.g., giving birth to a healthy baby) that are so intense you can’t describe them. There are everyday events that make you happy—spending time with family and friends, the pleasures of a good book, the garden, etc. There is a feeling of reasonable accomplishment in the last third of your life, if you are lucky, that has nothing to do with what you do or do not have. And let us please remember—while I would love nothing more for everyone to have every possible thing they need and every possible opportunity—that there is no utopia on Planet Earth. History has told us that over and over again.

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