Why Swedes are Happier Than We Are: An American Perspective

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As an American, I’m aware that most of us would proclaim that we live in the greatest country in the world because we’re the most democratic, wealthy and powerful. But one thing is for sure: we’re not the happiest. Based on my time living in Sweden, it comes as no surprise to me that this Nordic country continues to appear among the top 10 “happiest” places in the world.

Since 2012, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has released a World Happiness Report, which rates the happiness of inhabitants of 155 countries based on their satisfaction with things like life expectancy, GDP per capita, employment, social support, income inequality and lack of corruption in government and business. In the SDSN’s 2017 World Happiness Report, Sweden was rated #9 (tied with Australia), dropping slightly four places from #5 in 2016. In fact, several (if not all) of the Nordic countries have consistently made it into the top 10. In 2017, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland were ranked #1, #2, #3 and #5, respectively. This is because many of Sweden’s cultural and socioeconomic characteristics are shared by their Scandinavian brethren. In comparison, the United States was ranked #14 in the 2017 report.  

For those with only a limited understanding of the Nordic region (i.e., most Americans), it’s understandable for them to ask themselves, “How can this possibly be?” Given the country’s frigid Nordic climate, you won’t often see Swedes enjoying outdoor activities that I might take for granted living in Miami, Florida — whether it be swimming in the ocean, having a picnic or playing a round of golf. For the record, Sweden does have beautiful, sandy beaches; but when I recently saw Kevin Hart race against Usain Bolt in their latest GameOn challenge, I was 100 percent sure that the venue wasn’t Tanto Beach or Norrfällsviken! So, the question then becomes
“How do Swedes remain so contented, even while suffering through the “deep freeze?”

Unless you’ve lived there, I think it would be difficult for an outsider, particularly an American, to understand why the Swedish results on the happiness scale make sense. Although Swedes get taxed at exorbitant rates that most Americans would find unconscionable, there are several logical (and in my opinion, worthwhile) justifications for this. Sweden has a long-standing system of governmental support for universal healthcare, free higher education, five weeks of paid vacation from work and several other social programs that are designed to assist its citizenry in acquiring skills and job opportunities. This enduring Swedish lifestyle solved most of the country’s “basic” problems some time ago, so the system is well-supported by the populace, notwithstanding the high taxation. Because of these time-honored policies, the things that most Swedes are concerned about these days can legitimately be described as “first world problems”.

And the cultural benefits don’t stop there. Believe it or not, the average Swede makes a significantly larger salary than the average North American. Most Swedish households include two working parents, which can, on average, generate more income per home. Furthermore, Swedes are good at prioritizing their physical and mental well-being and making smart psychological choices. As just a couple of examples, Sweden has an official holiday to engage in sporting activities, and many households have a country home that they use when they want to get out of the city and enjoy nature.

It also doesn’t hurt that Swedes are attractive, healthy and quite liberal and tolerant. I have also found them to be more self-aware, direct and honest than many other cultures. They support each other, they’re trustworthy and in Sweden, the “honor system” works. According to Meik Wiking, who is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, “What works in the Nordic countries is a sense of community and understanding in the common good.”

Mr. Wiking’s sentiments lead us to the one word that I believe most succinctly captures the philosophical underpinnings of Swedish contentment: “lagom”. This word is uniquely Swedish, and a direct translation does not exist in the English language, which is the best evidence of the purity of its genesis. Roughly translated, it means something akin to “not too much, not too little,” “sufficient” or “adequate”. For example, you can have a lagom number of meatballs, live in a lagom apartment and have your heating set at a lagom temperature.

For me, this single word “lagom” encapsulates the entire Swedish socially-democratic philosophy on life: that everyone should have enough, but not too much (which is antithetical to the stereotypical American capitalist mindset). From what I’ve studied and personally experienced, Sweden does not have either a massive lower class or wealthy class — it is predominantly characterized by a large middle-class existence. Furthermore, I have witnessed (and elicited) the Swedish distaste for either excessive confidence, braggadocious behavior or conspicuous material consumption. In fact, despite their “happiness,” I’ve found that Swedes are some of the humblest (and oftentimes, self-deprecating) people I’ve ever met.

So, perhaps my fellow Americans should consider putting their U.S. pride aside for just one moment to take a good look at what kind of cultural mindset works. Who knows? If we can find a way to combine our more forgiving climate and plentiful resources with a “lagom” lifestyle, then perhaps the U.S. could even break into the SDSN’s top 10 one day. It’s up to us.

Written by Emily Galich

Emily is an American from New York who has spent the last 3 years in Sweden. When she isn’t learning about Swedish culture and enjoying a fika, Emily enjoys skiing and swimming. 

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