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Why Nordic countries might not be as happy as you think

Stock image of woman wrapped up in knitwear with fairy lights and a hot drink Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ideas from the "happiest countries" such as the Danish hygge have grown in popularity

Nordic countries like Finland and Norway may regularly come out on top of world happiness indexes for wellbeing year-on-year - but new research shows the happiness is far from universal.

A report authored by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen aims to provide a more nuanced picture of life in the Nordic nations - suggesting their reputations as utopias for happiness are masking significant problems for some parts of the population, especially young people.

The researchers behind In the Shadow of Happiness looked at data collected across five years between 2012-2016 to try and build a better picture of the so-called "happiness superpowers".

It asked people to mark their satisfaction with life out of 10 - with people above a seven categorised as thriving, fives and sixes as struggling and anyone scoring below a four deemed to be suffering.

It found that in total 12.3% of people living in the Nordic region said they were struggling or suffering, with 13.5% of young people ranking themselves as such.

This level only worsened in the age bracket of 80 or above - a group more affected by issues like illness.

It found general health and mental health were both closely associated with happiness ratings - with unemployment, income and sociability also playing a role.

The world's happiest - and least happy - countries in 2018
Happiest Least happy
1. Finland 147. Malawi
2. Norway 148. Haiti
3. Denmark 149. Liberia
4. Iceland 150. Syria
5. Switzerland 151. Rwanda
6. Netherlands 152. Yemen
7. Canada 153. Tanzania
8. New Zealand 154. South Sudan
9. Sweden 155. Central African Republic
10. Australia 156. Burundi

By and large the report challenges our typical conception of the happiness trajectory of life - especially that we are all at our happiest while young.

Mental health as a factor

Researchers found mental health to be one of the most significant barriers to subjective well-being.

Their data found these problems being reported by young people in particular.

"More and more young people are getting lonely and stressed and having mental disorders," one of the report's authors, Michael Birkjaer, told the Guardian newspaper.

"We are seeing that this epidemic of mental illness and loneliness is reaching the shores of the Nordic countries."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The report said young women reported the highest levels of unhappiness in some areas

In Denmark, 18.3% of people aged 16 to 24 said they suffered from poor mental health - with the number rising to 23.8% for women in that age bracket.

Norway saw a 40% increase over the five-year-period of young people seeking help for mental health difficulties.

The report notes that in Finland, which ranked as the happiest world country in 2018, suicide was responsible for a third of all deaths among the age bracket.

It found that young women consistently reported feeling depressed more than young men did.

What other patterns did it find?

The authors say that in Nordic countries high incomes protected people against feeling they were suffering or struggling.

They also found that people were more than three times more likely to report a low score if they were unemployed, especially men, who were also more likely to report mental health problems when unemployed.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nordic countries regularly appear in the top five happiest places, according to the survey, with Finland coming top this year

It said that research shows lack of social contact was a greater problem among Nordic men than women.

Other conclusions included:

  • Ethnic minorities living in Nordic countries were less happy
  • Very religious people were more likely to be happier
  • No difference was found between people living in the country and those in cities

Is it really that bad then?

While the figures may seem stark, it is in isolation in some of the happiest - overall - countries on earth.

Although the report particularly focuses on Nordic countries, it does compare some of the data to that recorded elsewhere.

So while 3.9% of people in the Nordic region may report scores so low they are classed as "suffering" - that level is as high as 26.9% in Russia and 17% in France.

So the picture in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden does remain relatively rosy - just not as perfect as some may have painted.

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