According to the UN’s most recent World Happiness Report,1 Finns are the happiest people in the world.
This is the tenth time the annual report has been published and as in previous years, the Nordics feature prominently towards the top of the list of happiest nations in the world. The Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland have consistently ranked in the top ten since the report was originally published in 2012. This is the sixth consecutive time Finland has been number one.
What exactly does the World Happiness Report measure when it talks about happiness? What lies behind these rankings? The World Happiness Report relies on self-reported overall assessments of the lives of their respondents. Using something called the Cantril Scale, a representative sample from each country is asked to imagine a ten-step ladder, the top of which represents the best possible life for them and the bottom which represents the worst. They are asked to rate their well-being at that moment and imagine what it will likely be in five years. In addition to self-reported well-being, the report also emphasizes the role of economic and political factors in creating the conditions for happiness. The Nordics, according to this year’s report all have high ranks for both a subjective sense of happiness and, more objectively, social and economic equality.
A cottage industry has arisen over the last decade or so trying to explain, as well as capitalize upon, the curious phenomenon of Nordic happiness. A stroll through one of the capital city airports in the Nordics will demonstrate as much. Prominently displayed on bookshelves, you’ll find titles with more or less untranslatable Nordic words in their titles such as, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. Christian publishing is even jumping on the bandwagon. In her 2022 book, Holy Hygge: Creating a Place for People to Gather and the Gospel to Grow, author Jamie Erickson attempts to unite the Danish concept of hygge and theology, showing “how hygge can be a companion for making a home where people can find God.”
What explains this Nordic exceptionalism? Researchers have pointed to a number of explanations,2 but the truth probably consists of a combination of various proposed factors: A generous welfare state, high quality political institutions, low income inequality, a widespread sense of freedom and agency, social cohesion and as a result, high levels of trust among the citizenry. If you ask a Nordic person, they might answer that people are generally content. Tempering your expectations seems to be a peculiarly Nordic virtue. Things might not be amazing, but they could certainly be a lot worse. The dark side of this tendency is the Law of Jante, a societally ubiquitous skepticism of anyone who thinks too highly of themselves. But in its best form, it creates a sense of contentment in relation to one’s lot in life (and probably makes Swedes some of the best producers of pop music in the world). Contentment is, of course, closely related to happiness and satisfaction in life.
A post-Christian region
As a Christian leader in the Nordics, all this makes me somewhat ambivalent. I’m an elder in Filadelfia, a small town church with its origins in the Plymouth Brethren movement, here in the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands are an autonomous region within the Danish commonwealth. It’s something of a Nordic outlier as it relates to faith—in the most recent census, 94% of the population self-identified as Christian. People still go to church here. But the trajectory of secularization is the same here as it is in neighboring Nordic countries, it’s only delayed by a decade or two.
Because while Nordic people are among the happiest in the world, they also set records in godlessness. In a poll conducted in Iceland a couple of years ago, to cite one noteworthy sample, researchers found literally no person under the age of 25 who believed the biblical account of creation.3 There’s still a lot of what British sociologist Grace Davie called, “belonging without believing”.4 Almost 60% of the Swedish population, for example, belongs to the Lutheran church, but less than 20% actually believe in God.5 Less than 5% go to church on a regular basis. Only 9% of Danes regard their faith as “very important” to them.6 Both in terms of institutional disaffiliation and personal disbelief in God, the negative trends are only accelerating.7 The Nordics are a thoroughly post-Christian region.8
I am, of course, happy that my neighbors are happy. But I grieve for their godlessness. Without the gospel, without God, no person, however happy, has any real hope. But people here don’t seem to care. Perhaps more apatheist than atheist, they simply have other things to worry about. The prosperity, luxuries, and abundant ease of modern life distracts the people of the Nordics, turning their attention from the eternal to the temporal. And they seem to be doing fine.
Safety is an illusion
This theme is not new. It runs through the Bible. How is it that those who turn from the Lord prosper, while the people of God struggle? The prophet Jeremiah asks, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit” (Jeremiah 12:1–2). So does Job: “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7).
In Psalm 73, the psalmist confesses, “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3). Because the wicked look like they’re doing exceptionally well. But then the psalmist changes his perspective and sees the truth:
“…when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (v. 16–17).
From the vantage point of God’s sanctuary, from the eternal perspective, the prosperity of the wicked is exposed as an illusion. Their arrogance is built upon a lie. However well they might seem to be doing in this life, they “are destroyed in a moment” (v. 19).
Jesus similarly talked about the danger of material prosperity and temporal well-being. “For what does it profit a man,” he asked in Mark 8:36, “to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Using the story of Noah, Jesus identified this perilous and illusory state of mind:
For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:37–39).
In his commentary on Galatians, Luther said, “The white devil of spiritual sin is far more dangerous than the black devil of carnal sin because the wiser, the better men are without Christ, the more they are likely to ignore and oppose the Gospel.”9 Self-righteousness is more dangerous than outright depravity, because whereas the self-righteous and the depraved are equally lost, only one of them knows it. Or is substantially closer to knowing it through guilt and shame. This is second use (out of three) of God’s law, according to Luther:10 it acts like a mirror “to show a person what he is like, a sinner who is guilty of death, and worthy of everlasting punishment.”11
Instead of looking to God’s righteousness as a mirror that reveals our own unrighteousness, the happiness and hygge, the economic prosperity and social cohesion, the hedonic distractions and self-perceived contentment of Nordic people keep them curved in upon themselves,12 blind to their need for a Savior. All have sinned and fall short, regardless of how aware they are of their guilt (Rom. 3:23). Happiness can be a blessing, but from this perspective it can also be a curse. It is transitory and rightly understood, it points beyond itself to the Giver of all good gifts (James 1:17) and the eternal happiness that is promised to those who believe in the gospel. This is our only hope in life and death.