Finland, Norway, and Denmark were recently ranked the world’s three happiest countries. This may not come as a surprise, since they’ve been dancing around at the top for a while now, along with Switzerland. Meanwhile, America fell to 18th on this list by the World Happiness Report. While it isn’t a terrible ranking, the decline is noteworthy. For a country whose average income has risen for several decades, our declining happiness is important, and telling. And it actually makes a lot of sense.
Why are the Nordic countries so happy? The usual explanations are that while taxes are high, they go to making life measurably better and more secure: there’s high quality free healthcare and education. There’s ample parental leave, and labor market models that protect against a lot of anxiety around jobs and job loss.
But as Denmark native Marie Helweg-Larsen, Professor of Psychology at Dickinson College, points out in The Conversation, the countries have a social construct that’s important to daily life: In Danish, it’s “hygge.” Though there’s no real English equivalent, Helweg-Larsen translates this as “intentional intimacy,” which can manifest, among other things, as warm, cozy, connected social interactions. She says it can be a noun, verb, or adjective, and the sensation of hygge can “happen when you have safe, balanced and harmonious shared experiences. A cup of coffee with a friend in front of a fireplace might qualify, as could a summer picnic in the park.”
Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands all have their own equivalents of hygge, Helweg-Larsen says.
The U.S., on the other hand, is languishing, probably in part because we don’t have so much hygge. In the World Happiness Report, there’s a chapter devoted to the fall in American happiness—the author of that section, Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University, suggests that there are three main variables behind it. “America’s subjective well-being is being systematically undermined by three interrelated epidemic diseases, notably obesity, substance abuse (especially opioid addiction), and depression.”
What’s obvious right off the bat is that none of these three variables is really a cause in itself—they’re all arguably symptoms of something else.
And Sachs acknowledges this a bit. Obesity, he says, rose with the increase in added sugars, the rocketing popularity of snack foods and convenient processed foods, and the switch from coffee to soda over the last few decades. Opioid addiction has ravaged the country in recent years, some parts more than others, and dragged down average life expectancy. “This reversal in the upward trend of life expectancy is shocking and almost unprecedented for a rich country in recent decades,” writes Sachs. Opioid use in the U.S. is more revealing of deeper psychological problems, and a need to self-medicate.
Finally, depression has become startlingly common in the U.S. (although to be fair, it’s not just in this country, it’s happening all over the world). Again, depression isn’t exactly a cause itself, but more a symptom of something(s) else. Sachs gives some pretty good guesses as to what these issues are: social factors, like lack of social support and increasing loneliness and isolation; economic issues, including financial stress and income equality; the rise in materialism that’s been seen in recent years and has been linked to depression; physical problems (sugar addiction, obesity, lack of exercise), and the fact that people are spending a disturbing amounts of time on social media and smartphones.
Some of these variables are so interrelated that they’re hard to tease apart, and there are clearly some vicious cycles going on. Separating symptoms from causes isn’t always so clear, but we’re starting to do better at understanding it. In some ways, the root causes of our fall in happiness are all social at heart, and may have a lot to do with the disintegration of true social connection and support networks. Maybe we should take a lesson from Denmark and other other countries that top the list again and again, and put a little less emphasis on making money and staring at screens, and make “hygge” a more central part of our lives