How Equal is the Nordic Happiness?
21 Mar 2019
People in the Nordics generally live a good life. Despite this, many experience loneliness, stress, depression and a sense of futility. Michael Birkjær, author of the report In the Shadow of Happiness, presents the factors that affect our perceived happiness.
Michael Birkjær wrote the report In the Shadow of Happiness on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Birkjær is an analyst at the thinktank the Happiness Research Institute.
– In the report, a collaboration with the Nordic Council of Ministers, we have studied the people who find themselves struggling. The age groups in which we find those who consider themselves most unfortunate are 80+ and 18-23. The young unemployed and the chronically sick are generally to be found in these groups.
Five factors affect happiness
People in the Nordics generally live a good life. The Nordic countries are always among the top 10 happiness superstars in surveys. In 2018, Finland was top, closely followed by Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden was in ninth place. Despite this, a large proportion of the population experience loneliness, stress, depression and a sense of futility. In the Nordic population as a whole, 12.3% state that they are struggling with some form of ill health. In the report, Birkjær states five factors that most commonly cause inequality in wellbeing; poor general health, poor mental health, inequality of income, unemployment and limited social contact.
– The experience of loneliness and lack of feeling that one belongs to a community are constantly underestimated factors in health surveys. While limited social contact is a major problem for the elderly, a sense of loneliness is stronger and more tangible among young people.
Studies lack a holistic perspective
Inequality in wellbeing is primarily affected by the level of ill health, meaning that measures should be targeted at individuals with physical or mental health problems.
– Studies that for example look at the degree of wellbeing among patients do not include aspects that reflect life in general. We therefore strongly recommend the prioritisation of happiness research so that we can better understand what really matters to the individual – given that this knowledge will also create economic benefits.
The impact of health and income
In the Nordic countries, it is general health that has the greatest impact on perceived happiness; unlike the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, where mental health is the primary factor. It is primarily the elderly who suffer from failing physical health.
– Mental illness is on the rise among young people and our report shows that this is the second largest factor affecting the perception of happiness, with young women most likely to suffer.
Those in top income brackets are described in the report as being protected against dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Michael Birkjær does however emphasise that this only applies to the top 10% of earners in the population. Income is ranked as the third most important factor for the perception of happiness.
Work and social networks
Unemployment is associated with struggling and suffering. According to Birkjær, one in three unemployed people in the Nordic region suffers from some form of ill health; a figure that falls to one in ten of those in work.
– Both unemployment and a lack of social contact have a greater effect on men’s mental health. Older men in particular are less social, which is a contributing factor to unhappiness.
Birkjær underlines one final factor that affects our happiness: religion.
– Those who consider themselves very religious are happier; however, atheists and the moderately religious are on the same level of happiness.
In conclusion, Birkjær states that the trope of a carefree youth no longer applies in the Nordics:
– There is a tendency for young people to see themselves as less happy than the rest of the population, which is unique. What does this mean for the future? We just don’t know.
The conference Health Equity in the Nordic Region was arranged in Stockholm 22-23 November 2018 as a collaboration between the Nordic Welfare Centre and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs in Sweden, under the auspices of the Swedish chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Michael Birkjær was one of the speakers at the conference.
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