STOCKHOLM—The Nordic countries are well-known for finding themselves at the top of international studies about happiness.
But a recent study finds a slightly different view of life than the widely accepted rosy image of people in that part of the world: There appears to be a “happiness gap,” in which young people in particular are growing increasingly unhappy.
The study, “In the Shadow of Happiness,” by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, found that subjective well-being is unevenly distributed in the otherwise egalitarian Nordic countries.
While the general level of happiness is still high—Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland top the World Happiness Report of 2018, with Sweden in 9th place—12.3 percent of the people in the Nordic region fall in the “struggling” or “suffering” categories. On a scale of zero to 10, these groups had a self-reported score of zero to four (suffering) or five to six (struggling). Seven and above is defined as “thriving.”
In this study, the Danes were the happiest, with 91.9 percent thriving, and the Swedes the least happy, but still at an impressive 85.1 percent thriving. The UK, by comparison, has 74.9 percent thriving, and Russia a mere 38.4 percent.
One observation that the authors make is that the Nordic countries defy a common distribution pattern across age groups worldwide. Typically, people are happier in their youth, and then again in their old age, with a dip in the middle, in a kind of U-shape. But for the Nordic countries, this shape is now almost inverted, where the young and the very old being the least happy.
Poor Mental Health
One reason for this is that the main two factors for unhappiness in the Nordic countries are general health and mental health. While general health, for natural reasons, will decline sharply among the oldest, poor mental health among the young has become a big problem. The study found that especially young women were unhappy. In Sweden, almost 20 percent of women aged 18-23 were struggling or suffering.
Ulf Andreasson, one of the editors of the report, told Swedish Television that the Nordic countries might, in fact, not be as happy as the study suggests.
“There is some concern that the figures might be higher, that we’re such a happy region that it would be a social stigma to tell people that you’re unhappy,” he said.
Suicide among young people is a big problem in the Nordic countries, especially in Finland, where it’s responsible for one-third of all deaths among 15-24-year-olds, according to other statistics from the Nordic Council of Ministers that are cited in the report.
Another find was that highly religious people tended to be significantly happier than non-religious people. All of the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, are among the most secular and rational and least traditional in the world, according to the World Values Survey.
Among the negative consequences of unhappiness is a loss of trust, the Nordic Council of Ministers report says. The Nordic communities report higher levels of social trust than the rest of the world, which, in turn, has a positive socio-economic effect.
Studies have shown that inequality in subjective well-being has a greater impact on trust than income equality, according to the report.