The Daily Parker

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Misunderstanding national happiness

After the World Happiness Report comes out each year, everyone wants to live in Scandinavia, which usually dominates the top 10 every time. But people seem not to understand why Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the rest rank so high. Perhaps it's not hygge but lagom. Or maybe it's free health care:

Sort of like how the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led Americans to feel like their country was falling behind technologically, or how the results of international standardized tests in the 2000s led them to feel like their kids were falling behind educationally, the happiness rankings have subtly encouraged an anxiety fit for our era of self-optimization: that somewhere, other people are doing things that make them much happier than we are.

This disturbing thought has contributed to the rise of a genre of lifestyle content that aims to help unhappy Americans emulate the daily practices and philosophies of happier places, whether that means taking a dip in frigid water or making your living room super-cozy. Wanting to copy the happiest people in the world is an understandable impulse, but it distracts from a key message of the happiness rankings—that equitable, balanced societies make for happier residents. In the process, a research-heavy, policy-oriented document gets mistaken, through a terrible global game of telephone, for a trove of self-help advice.

Perhaps deeper insights can be gained from looking beyond the trends of cozy hearths and nature walks. Even the Nordic countries themselves have a lesser-known cultural ideal that probably brings happiness more reliably than hygge. Jukka Savolainen, a Finnish American sociology professor at Wayne State University, in Michigan, argued in Slate that the essence of his happy home region is best captured by lagom, a Swedish and Norwegian word meaning “just the right amount.”

In other words, people report feeling happier when they don't have to worry about bankruptcy after incurring minor medical expenses, when they have adequate public services, and when they just don't want to acquire more stuff. But hey, buy more cardamom if it feels good.

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