The 2021 World Happiness Report was just released, and once again, the five Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden achieved the top spots for the happiest countries in the world, with rankings of 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7, respectively. Since 2013, all five Nordic countries have finished within the top 10 rankings, and for the past five years, a Nordic country has been in the top spot. The United States trails these leaders at No. 18 in 2020 and No. 14 in 2021.
What accounts for this “Nordic exceptionalism?”
In the 2020 WHR, researchers suggested several common national characteristics. Like the U.S., all of the Nordic states are high income countries, but these countries also provide substantial benefits and services for their people including comfortable pensions, support for the ill and disabled, generous unemployment benefits, universal education and health care and accessible public transportation.
Nordic residents appreciate their strong social safety net, but researchers also found that citizens trusted their governments and found them effective and responsive. Another feature these nations share is a low level of income inequality; the U.S., in contrast, has the highest level of inequality among western democracies.
Americans value our individual independence and personal freedoms, but the Nordics have us beat there as well; their average worldwide rank regarding “freedom to choose what you do with your life” is 6.2, while America's is 64. There are also higher levels of trust and social cohesion among Nordic people.
The WHR researchers conclude "…building a government that is trustworthy and functions well, and… building a sense of community and unity among the citizens are the most crucial steps towards a society where people are happy."
In their Better Life Index 2020, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a collection of 37 democratic economic powers — presented additional evidence for Nordic exceptionalism. In a ranking of OECD nations, the U.S. was 26th in crime and safety, while the Nordics averaged 5.6. On social support received from neighbors, the U.S. ranked 21, while the Nordics averaged 6.4. On a measure of educational attainment, the Nordic’s average rank on reading, math and spelling proficiency was only 15.4, surpassed by several Asian countries and reduced by Iceland’s outlier status at No. 29. But this average still beat the U.S. rank of 25.
I don’t share these observations because I hate America; quite the opposite.
I am an avid reader of these opinion pages so I know that many of my neighbors fear that with President Trump gone, and President Biden in, there is nothing to stop an apocalyptic swing to radical socialism, and with it, the loss of our American way of life. In the spirit of unity, I hope to quell your fears.
First, President Biden is not a socialist. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who openly promote social democratic policies, are clearly not authoritarian socialists in the Marxist, Cuban or Venezuelan mold. The most extreme left-leaning Democrats are proposing policies no more radical than what currently exists in the Nordic countries. Portraying Democrats as Marxists is nothing more than fearmongering and a deceitful fundraising tactic.
Does Nordic exceptionalism challenge American pride? Should we beat back these data because they are consistent with social democratic principles or suggest America is not the best at everything — a delusional version of American exceptionalism?
As I write, I can hear the impassioned faux-patriotism of critics, “if you love the Nordic countries so much, why don’t you strap on your snowshoes and drive your Volvo to Sweden!” But they would have missed my point.
I love my family and our Christmas traditions. A few years back, my wife was treated to her sister’s family tradition of a special pastry on Christmas morning. My wife brought the idea home to our family, where this special breakfast has become one of our favorite family traditions. Did anyone say “if you love those pastries so much, why don’t you leave and join your sister’s family?” Of course not.
Can we have pride in our country and still borrow good ideas from others? Wouldn’t it be great to be a freer, safer, smarter, closer and happier nation?
Steve Bacon is a professor of psychology and director of the Quality of Life Center at Cal State Bakersfield.