Sun, Sep 02, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Nordic Council report looks at ‘significant minority’ who defy top happiness ratings

By Sarah Boseley  /  The Guardian

The Nordic countries top the polls as the happiest in the world, but the assumption that life in Scandinavia is all bicycles and big smiles disguises the sadness of a significant minority of young people.

Among those in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland who do not say that life is good, some of the largest numbers are among the young — and particularly young women. While the reasons vary from one person and one country to another, it is thought that stress, loneliness and feeling under pressure to succeed might be playing a large part in their unhappiness.

Contentment in the Nordic nations has been the envy of the rest of the world. In indices of global happiness from the UN and the Organisation for Econonomic Co-operation and Development — measured not just by wealth, but also by people’s own sense of satisfaction with their lives — the same clutch of countries always come out top.

This year Finland took first place in the UN’s World Happiness Report league table, even though its GDP is below that of the US and Germany.

However, the Nordic Council of Ministers — a collaboration of the five countries, as well as the Kingdom of Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Greenland, and Finland’s Aland Islands — decided to look at those who did not appear so happy.

The result was a report coauthored by the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen which provides “a more nuanced picture,” it said.

“There are also those who report to be struggling or even suffering when they evaluate their own lives,” it said.

Faced with a happiness survey, it is normal for people living in Nordic countries to score seven, eight or nine out of 10, the report said.

“A value of less than seven can therefore be seen as a deviation,” it said.

The researchers looked at those who scored between five and six, whom they classified as struggling, and those who scored between zero and four, deemed to be suffering.

In Nordic countries, they found that 12.3 percent of the population are struggling or suffering. That rose to 13.5 percent of the 18-to-23-year-old group.

Among Swedish young women, it is 19.5 percent — nearly one in five — compared with 13.8 percent of Swedish young men. The only age group less happy than the young were the oldest.

Among those aged 80 and up, 16 percent were struggling or suffering, with physical health problems and loneliness thought to be the biggest factors.

Happiness Research Institute analyst Michael Birkjaer, one of the authors, said that young people are increasingly reporting higher stress levels and loneliness around the western world.

“More and more young people are getting lonely and stressed, and having mental disorders,” Birkjaer said. “We are seeing that this epidemic of mental illness and loneliness is reaching the shores of the Nordic countries.”

The reasons are guesswork, he said — although the institute plans further research.

“We have some evidence as to where the problem may lie. In Denmark the perfectionism culture is a huge topic,” he said.

Young people feel they are expected to excel in exams — something referred to as “the 12th grade culture,” he said. “It is a huge debate in Denmark and not something we can ignore.”

It might be that the world appears a harder place in which to prosper.

“We have seen these decreases in happiness in many countries since the financial crisis, even though countries like Denmark have regained economic growth,” he said.

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