What Americans Can Learn From Scandinavians, the Happiest People in the World

Scandinavian Mountains, Norway, Odda
Scandinavian Mountains, Norway, Odda | Olena Tur/Shutterstock
Scandinavian Mountains, Norway, Odda | Olena Tur/Shutterstock

If you were to envision the world’s happiest people, you might imagine an island nation somewhere, where folks sit on a beach slurping juice out of coconuts all day. But more realistically, you might picture a dude in slim-cut slacks, eight months into paternity leave, biking his two young kids to a coffee shop under a cold, slate sky.

That Scandinavian life is famous for its sense of well-being. The UN’s World Happiness Report, in fact, now ranks Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden at the top of their happiness list. By contrast, the US -- a country accustomed to being the best in the world at everything, except perhaps humility -- is in a period of happiness slippage, having wilted from third place to 19th in 10 short years. The stated reasons for that drop are “declining social support” and “increased corruption.” You may not be able to do much about the social contract at large, but if you’re trying to get as happy as the Danes or Finns, it might be worth asking: What do they know about happiness that Americans don’t?  

To find out, we hit up an array of Scandinavians, travelers, and diplomats about just what makes these tall, beautiful, Viking children of the north so damn happy all the time. Here’s what we learned.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark | jolly/Shutterstock.com

Work-life balance skews strongly toward life

The No. 1 thing Scandinavians cite as the source of their happiness is their ferocious dedication to actually enjoying their lives. The time off work the government allows its citizens is absurd by American standards. It’s almost as if people’s well being doesn’t correlate with long hours at the office.

“We’re very productive,” said Dorte Riggelsen, Denmark’s Consul-General in New York. “But we also have a respect for time off for your family. You see Danes on bicycles early to work, and then they leave late afternoon in order to spend time with family -- that makes for a better environment for kids and adults.”

“They have very long vacations,” said Catherine Gilmore-Lawless, a Canadian-American medical professional who studied abroad in Stockholm and then moved there. “Five weeks, which can accumulate.  And it’s really frowned upon if you don’t take it -- you’re an idiot. They think we’re all crazy that we criticize people for taking vacation.”

Geiranger fjord, Norway
Geiranger fjord, Norway | Sergey_Bogomyako/Shutterstock

Rather than 25 paid days off per year, the average American worker gets 16 -- but only a quarter of us take all that time, according to Glassdoor’s Employee Satisfaction Survey. Also, the average American vacation lasts about four days. Fifteen percent of Americans claim they don’t take any vacation at all.

“Three-week vacations are normal here,” said Josh Dickstein, a dual US-Norwegian citizen. “Almost everyone I know has spent a month in Thailand. It’s like the first place everyone goes after high school.”

Perhaps because they get so much time away from work, they do take their hours in the office very seriously. For instance, Scandinavians are less apt to drink during the week -- often not so much as a beer on the couch after a brutal day at the office. It smacks of an unhealthy booze dependency and a divergence from being a good worker and family member.

Fridays and Saturdays in Scandinavia, however, are notoriously explosive.

“It’s like a war zone in [Bergen, Norway] on weekends,” Dickstein said. “Happiness is this incredible sense of belonging here socially.”

Man and children
Man and children in Copenhagen, Denmark | Lisaveya/Shutterstock.com

If you have a kid, you get even more paid time off work

The Scandinavian premium on living your best life extends into maternity and paternity leave, which are famously the most generous in the world.

In Iceland, “a mother has nine months paid leave, and a father can take three months,” said Guðbjörg Bjarnadóttir Özgun, an Icelandic consular affairs officer in Washington, DC. “From start of life, family is important, and government supports that.”

In the US, mothers get 12 weeks of leave from their job, one of the lowest numbers in the industrialized world. Oh, and that leave is unpaid.

New Swedish parents, according to their national website, get 480 days of paid leave while receiving 80 percent of their salary. Expectant mothers can get free childbirth coaching 60 days into the pregnancy, can reduce their normal working hours by up to 25% until the child turns 8, and can receive a monthly child allowance until a child turns 16. Many of these benefits are also available to Swedes who are unemployed.

“They think it’s really important mom spends time with child, no questions asked,” Gilmore-Lawless said. “And they have to retain your job. So you can have sequential kids and just not work for, like, three years.”  

BLUE LAGOON, ICELAND | Edwin Verin/Shutterstock.com

Scandinavians are obsessed with getting outdoors

The region is absolutely jam-packed with natural beauty: the Fjords of Norway, the Lapland of Sweden, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, the Northern Lights. Frigidly cold weather is scarcely a deterrent for getting out into nature. With God’s best work just a short drive away, being in the great outdoors is no less than a national pastime in Scandinavia.  

“Kids learn this early: there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes,” said Gilmore-Lawless. “They can’t believe Americans take their cars everywhere. Pretty much everyone is in great shape. You’ll see everyone out walking, long walks. It’s just a thing.”

“Now that I live here,” said Anna Vuonia, a consular officer from Helsinki, “I realize that Finns do spend a lot of time outdoors and in nature. Even in winter, we always try to find ways to go hiking or walking. Here (in New York City), I’m struggling to find time to do all that.”

“This society is designed for people to not be in a car,” said Dickstein. “Norway isn’t interested in making exercise a compartmented part of your life, it’s supposed to be your lifestyle. People go to the gym, but they’re not running. They’re running outside. They’re biking in the mountains.”

Stadsbiblioteket library
Stadsbiblioteket library, Stockholm, Sweden | Hans Christiansson/Shutterstock.com

Your basic needs are met, so you're not living in constant fear of going broke

You’re going to be shocked, truly shocked, but one thing people love about living in countries with generous social programs is... the generous social programs.

The region’s famously high tax rate (over 50% average marginal rate compared to the US’s 27.4%) helps fund an incredibly comprehensive set of welfare programs that cover many of the things that probably stress out Americans. In Scandinavia, school is free, healthcare is basically free, and child daycare is totally free.

“Everyone gets educated,” said Chris Oates, a dentist living in Redondo Beach, California, who split his childhood between Los Angeles and Sweden. “When you have an educated population in a socialist system, the medical care in Sweden doesn’t need to be as expensive, because preventative care starts early. They’re just healthier overall as a nation, and if something comes up, they know they’re covered.”

Blue Planet National Aquarium Denmark
Blue Planet National Aquarium in Denmark, Copenhagen | A. Aleksandravicius/Shutterstock.com

In the US, public college costs more than $20,000 a year. The average cost of health insurance is over $10,000 a year. And in case of an emergency, most Americans say they don’t have even $500 on-hand to address it.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, healthcare (including dental!) is essentially free until you turn 20. After that, if your annual bills exceed about $130, a high-cost protection kicks in and covers you the rest of that year.

“You don’t have to work for health insurance or save up for college,” said Svenn Richard Andersen, a consular officer from Norway. “You might pay marginally more (in taxes) than the US, but I don’t have to spend a few thousand dollars a year on health for my family. The thought of having to pay $40,000 to $50,000 for a private school is unheard of for a Norwegian.”

Iceland had a particularly nasty time climbing out of the 2008 financial crisis. Rather than let homeowners suffer a wave of foreclosures, the country took a humane approach.

“If your house was at risk, you had meetings (with the government), they guided you,” said Bjarnadóttir Özgun. “If you go to Iceland now, you won’t see any signs of that time.”

Frederik Rubens Mortensen, a Danish finance worker who got his MBA in Los Angeles, offered a suggestion to Americans looking for a land of low homicides, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness, infant mortality, and high-school dropouts: head to his homeland, which has some of the best social mobility in the world.

“If Americans want to live the American dream,” he said, “they should move to Denmark.”

Nyhavn district of Copenhagen, Denmark
Nyhavn district, Copenhagen, Denmark | Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock.com

They trust one another, foster communities, and feel gratitude

Scandinavians say their social contracts thrive because their community is strong. “You have to be all-in,” Oates said. “Socialism only works if everyone’s onboard.” Intertwined with that sense is a shared responsibility to take care of one another and watch out for people’s health.

To do this, Scandinavians are some of the best people in the world at straight-up chilling together. Everyone does it a little differently. Danes do “hygge,” or comfortable indulgences to bond together. Finns have their saunas, a sacred bonding tradition dating back thousands of years with strict rules and customs.

Swedes famously have “fika,” which translates to “coffee,” but also means a culturally mandatory social hour, like water-cooler talk that everyone takes around the same time.

“Coffee breaks are pretty much mandated,” said Gilmore-Lawless about Sweden. “Everything drops. Not to be on their phone, but to converse with each other. You don’t mess with that fika time.”

Sundberg Konditori
Sundberg Konditori, Stockholm's oldest cafe | Julie Mayfeng/Shutterstock.com

The other side of the coin -- and this might sound odd to American ears -- is the social stigma and judgment incurred when one is not staying healthy, pulling their weight, or properly appreciating the incredible life they enjoy. Swedes will call out their friends if they’re picking up unhealthy habits. And Norwegians prefer that people strive not to stand out from the group too much. “It’s really frowned upon to put yourself out there and brag about your achievements,” Richard Andersen said about Norway. “You’re supposed to contribute your share, do the best you can -- but please don’t brag about it, unless you’re doing sports.”

Psychologists agree that affirming one’s gratitude is crucial to maintaining happiness, and this is something Scandinavians have in spades. Being appreciative of life and the benefits therein is almost a cultural default setting, bolstered by a collective push for that to be maintained.

“It’s part of our national story,” Vuonia said about Finland. “My grandparents were often starving after the war. Now we’re in this incredible state, everything is so secure, we live comfortably, we have excellent education and healthcare. It happened so fast.”

Frogner Park, Oslo, Norway
Frogner Park, Oslo, Norway | Tupungato/Shutterstock.com

“The ambition from the Danish society is not happiness,” Dorte Riggelsen said. “It’s to build a well-functioning society where people can feel secure and where they can have trust in their institutions.”

The Swedes also have a term that sums up their style of appreciation perfectly.

“Lagom does not translate very well,” Oates said, “but basically it means it’s just the right amount, just enough to be happy without indulging. Moderation. It’s kind of a mantra with the people. If you’re giving something a compliment, it’s like, ‘Lagom! That’s great!’”

The US, perhaps, is more enamored with extremes than with a sense of balance. In that spirit, though: Why not crib from the most extremely happy people on the planet? Scandinavian happiness has developed over decades and centuries and may not convert easily into American life. But somewhere out there, maybe you can find your lagom. Then, just be grateful.

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Brent is a writer from Los Angeles living in New York. He studied foreign affairs at USC, earned a graduate degree in Egypt, and then did counterterrorism analysis for the US Government before resigning to spend more time typing in coffee shops. Follow him on Twitter @BrentGiannotta.