What is the secret to a fulfilled, happy life? Perhaps we can glean some clues from the five Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – which score highly on measures of happiness, prosperity, social security and human development.
All five Scandinavian countries appear among the top 10 happiest countries in the latest World Happiness Report, released in March. Finland is top of the list, with the happiest citizens in the world. The United States, by contrast, manages only 16th on the index, while South Africa ranks 85th (out of 137 countries measured).
Three of these countries (Norway, Iceland and Denmark) are also among the top 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita, according to IMF figures for 2023, although only Norway, at third on the list, behind Luxembourg and Ireland, is higher than the United States, which lies seventh.
Beyond GDP per capita, we need to consider equality – how evenly is a country’s GDP distributed across its population? For this, we must look at the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality: the higher the number, the wider the gap between a country’s highest earners and its lowest earners. According to The World in Data, the Scandinavian countries are among the top 20 countries with the lowest Gini coefficients. The US shockingly ranks 124th among 167 countries, while South Africa has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal country in the world, with the highest Gini coefficient.
The Scandinavian countries also score highly on the Human Development Index, which combines measures of access to education, life expectancy, and income per capita. Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden are in the top 10, according to The World in Data, while Finland is 11th on the list.
These countries offer among the best social welfare benefits in the world. For example, their citizens enjoy free tertiary education and universal healthcare.
They’re also among the nations with the highest tax rates, but considering the perks they receive in return, this doesn’t seem to affect their happiness levels – the Scandinavians pay their high taxes with smiles on their faces!
One component of the World Happiness Index is a nation’s corruption level. The Scandinavian countries experience very low levels of corruption and crime – according to the World Population Review, they rank among the top 25 safest countries in the world.
Reasons for prosperity
So why are these countries thriving when so many seem to be flailing?
All five countries have small, relatively homogenous populations – of the five, Sweden’s population is the largest, at about 10.5 million.
They all have stable political systems which balance individual freedoms with collective responsibilities.
Perhaps the key word here is “balance”?
In his now famous 2015 TED talk on a 75-year longitudinal study of Americans in diverse walks of life, “What makes a good life: lessons from the longest study on happiness,” Professor Robert Waldinger of Harvard Medical School said the research showed that striving for wealth and social status early in one’s career had no bearing on long-term happiness. It showed instead that:
• Social connections are good for us – people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier and live longer;
• The quality of relationships matter – “good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old”, physically and mentally.
Are we sacrificing our relationships in our obsession with “success” as measured by material acquisitions?
I suggest that the Scandinavians achieve a good balance between their work and personal lives – to a large extent because they retain a strong sense of community – and this is fundamental to their prosperity in the broadest sense of the term.
In a recent post on LinkedIn, Marc Sydow, a Certified Financial Planner at Adviceworx in Cape Town, elaborated on the Swedish concept of “lagom”. He wrote:
“Lagom is a word that perfectly encapsulates balance and moderation, deeply rooted in Swedish culture. It embodies the idea of ‘just enough’ and finding harmony in all aspects of life.
“Lagom encourages us to seek a middle ground, avoiding extremes and excesses. It teaches us the art of contentment and appreciating what we have while avoiding unnecessary waste or overindulgence.
“In work-life balance, lagom reminds us to prioritise both our professional and personal well-being. It encourages a healthy blend of ambition and relaxation, allowing us to thrive in our careers without sacrificing our personal lives.
“Lagom extends beyond the individual and embraces a collective mindset. It promotes fairness, equality, and inclusivity, fostering a society where everyone has their fair share and where collaboration is valued.”
Sydow concluded: “We could all do with a little ‘lagom’ in our lives.”
I concur wholeheartedly. The world needs over-achievers, but they are in the minority, as it should be, and they sacrifice a lot to be that way.
Happiness lies in finding your Goldilocks zone.
* Hesse is the former editor of Personal Finance