A Scandinavian Explains Why They're the Happiest People in the World

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The spiritual well-being of the region is not a myth. For novelist Hanne Ørstavik, it derives from a deep sense of belonging and solidarity. But how can it survive in a changing society? 

Scandinavians are rated among the happiest people in the world. Why are we so happy? You might view happiness as the logical, cumulative effect of factors like social welfare, low population density, and clean and accessible nature. And those factors do count.

It helps to know that if your child has a chronic disease, she will get free medical treatment. That schools and universities are free, as well, for everyone. Our famously generous parental leave— about 12 months fully paid, including 12 weeks for fathers, in order to encourage early bonding between father and child, with a long-term goal of enhancing equality between the sexes—also contributes to this feeling of being protected by something larger than yourself, of living within a system that cares.

And this is where happiness becomes something deeper for us Scandinavians. All these little words that I use so easily—we, protection, care—come from a place in us that we don’t even notice, because it’s been there since birth, a sense of belonging and trust. If love is defined in psychoanalytic theory as attachment, then we Scandinavians enjoy quite a romance with our state.

But there is more. In the national hymns of all three countries, nature figures prominently. Maybe because we are so far north, a bit outside the world, Norway and Sweden like a kind of a peninsula, with Denmark as the belt cinching us away from mighty Europe, down there. It’s never really warm, nothing to be counted on, but the sun is lower in the sky, it comes more from the side, which gives off a kinder tone of light, with more shadow. And even when it’s cold, we live our life outdoors; to be outside is, for us, happiness in itself.

Happiness takes place in the body. And it was bodies that were destroyed, 69 young men and women, shot down on July 22, 2011, in Norway, by the 32-year-old Norwegian man Anders Behring Breivik, after he had first bombed the Government Quarter, killing eight. The victims were at a political summer camp on an island to which Breivik arrived, disguised as a policeman. We Scandinavians have faith in our police forces; we have faith in our system. And to think it was one of us who did this, not a desperate refugee—someone was destroying this we, this us, from the inside.

I remember that Friday night. I heard the bomb go off from my open bedroom window in Frogner, in central Oslo. I was sitting- ting at my desk writing and I heard this heavy break, like a thunderclap, but there were no clouds, and the sound was deeper. I did not understand it. Later that evening, I walked lap after lap around Vigeland Sculpture Park, down the long sloping lanes under the high trees.

I had to move. There was no one else out in the park. It was strangely empty. Later I learned that people had been instructed to remain inside, but I didn’t know that then. I walked under the trees for hours, helicopters chopping over the city, and I remember the blankness inside myself like there was no definition. I didn’t feel anything. It was just a big open hole.

Maybe the attack brought us closer to the rest of the world, or maybe it broke our trust, made us less naïve. The highrise that was bombed, in the Government Quarter, has been left as it was, unrestored, like a wound we’ve turned away from and pass by.

But what if Breivik had been an outsider? What about all these people coming from the rest of the world, refugees and immigrants, what can they do with our us, our we? People who did not grow up looking at the skies from the bulky sand dunes of the deserted western coast of Jutland, in Denmark, or who never saw the northern lights over the snow in the winter darkness of Tana in the far-north county of Finnmark, where I grew up—people whose relation to the state is conflicted, distrusting, who come from places where there is no protection, no structural we, but rather structural corruption and violence.

Sweden is the country that receives the most people from abroad per capita, much more than Denmark and Norway. I don’t know how this will pan out. I don’t know because the system of our happiness is built on a deep sense of belonging. I pay my taxes not only because I actually get a lot in return, but in a deeper sense because the system I’m helping to pay for is part of me, or I am a part of it. I want to take care of the society, of us, as I have been taken care of.

“You learn to be a mother as an infant,” my psychology professor at university said. What if it’s the same thing with growing into a society? What if we learn this system of trust, this us, not as an intellectual concept at school, but as a natural, corporeal thing? Not even a thing. It might just become like a way of breathing, like happiness. And if that’s the case, it goes deeper than national integration programs can ever reach. How do we then induct the new arrivals into our sense of we?