For much of the year, Finland has but a few hours of light and temperatures well below 0 degrees F. Yet the Finns are the happiest people in the world, according to the U.N.’s annual World Happiness Report. Norway is second, followed by Denmark and Iceland (also cold and dark). The U.S. dropped four places to 18th. (See Noted.) Now, happiness is no doubt hard to quantify, and this ranking should be taken as more suggestive than definitive. But why does our powerful and wealthy nation—whose founding promise is the individual pursuit of happiness—consistently fall into a second tier…and keep sinking?
Human beings, anthropologists and social psychologists tell us, are social creatures. Much of our happiness flows from our connections to other people, our sense of community and joint purpose. On these measures, America—despite its economic dynamism and vibrant culture—is in distinct decline. Trust in government, the media, and other institutions has plunged. Most people feel the system is “rigged” in favor of corporations, coastal elites, or some tribe other than their own. Work, and the ceaseless hunt for money, security, and consumer goods, dominate most people’s lives; time for family and friends, and the activities that build community and meaning, is often scarce. Loneliness is epidemic. So are consoling addictions to painkillers, unhealthy food, and technology. The most alienated among us load up on weapons and express their soul-sickness in blood. Finland, Norway, and Denmark are not without problems, but researchers say what sets the happier nations apart is the premium their cultures place on time spent in nature, and in harmonious, intimate contact with friends and family. The Danes even have a word, “hygge,” that describes these cozy, high-quality social interactions. If there is a suggestion we can collectively and personally take from the happiness ranking, it’s this: Richness comes from human connection. GDP matters less than hygge.