OPINION
04/27/2018 03:36 pm ET

World's Happiest Countries? Don't Be So Sure.

ChristianChan via Getty Images

For the third year in a row, the world’s 10 happiest nations remain the same. Nordic countries have consistently landed atop the Happiness Index in recent history, with Finland snagging the top prize for 2018.

The World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations, is based on the Gallup World Poll that asks people in more than 150 countries to rate the quality of their lives on a scale of zero to 10.

However, Nordic countries don’t just top the happiness charts; depression rates in these countries are also high. The latest estimates out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development include Finland, Iceland and Sweden among the seven most depressed of its member states.

Why the dissonance?

Some of the usual suspects cited in the string of counter articles disputing the Nordic happiness claim include cold winters, sparse sunlight and socialism.

As a Swede, I agree our winters are dreary, and tax days can be pretty bitter. But to solve this, we need to dig deeper than that.

I grew up in a country where very few people had to worry about everyday violence, or if they’d be able to put food on the table that day, or if they’d end up on the street after losing their jobs.

That said, Sweden is also a place where bookstores are filled with self-help manuals and where we manically renovate our kitchens but rarely cook; where every fridge is plastered with colorful sticky notes telling us to “Wake up with a smile!” and “No carbs after 6 p.m.”

We’ve been promised unconditional happiness since we were kids, so we go looking for it: in the self-help corner or in IKEA’s kitchen department.

These aspects of Swedish culture are perfect examples of the quick-fix approach to happiness that has become the norm in Nordic countries, the United States and the rest of the world’s “happiest” nations. Yes, the absence of acute threats to our well-being (which is a more accurate definition of what the Happiness Index is actually meant to measure) has likely helped make us happier. However, we’ve also consistently raised the bar of our expectations, resulting in the illusion that we can – and should! – be euphorically happy all the time.

It starts early. Children are sheltered from negative feelings as if unhappiness is an illness they won’t be able to shake. Instead of teaching kids how to deal with the full range of their emotions, we treat them like they’re fragile and incapable of navigating their way through uncomfortable feelings.

In the last couple of decades, childhood has transformed from a time when kids develop backbones and learn self-sufficiency into a sort of clinical microcosm of Ibuprofen, antibacterial cream and padded surfaces in which they are fed a diet of exceptionalism and an entitlement to happiness.

As a result, we’ve inevitably developed an intolerance to discomfort and perceive all suffering as unneeded ― or even as indisputable proof of mental defectives.  

I remember when my first real relationship ended and I, predictably upset, bought my first self-help book. Like most books in the shop’s self-help section (euphemistically categorized as “Non-Fiction: Life”), this one had a 30-something person on the cover with a seamless smile, a just-enough sunburn and a playfully unkempt haircut that gave him a neighborly aura.

Takeaways from that book? Wake up with a smile! Pay attention to people around you. Practice diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing) to lower your pulse.

I invite you to imagine what I must have looked like the following day as I roamed the streets of Stockholm, convulsively smiling, deep breathing like an overworked draught horse and eyeballing people - all while keeping my index finger glued to my carotid artery.

Nordic countries don’t just top the happiness charts; depression rates in these countries are also high.

And of course, afterward, I still felt like shit ― because I was supposed to feel like shit. I’d lost someone who was important to me. It was natural to grieve.

While helicopter parenting and self-help mania seem to be as widespread in the U.S. as in Sweden, its negative effects are enhanced by Swedes’ deep-seated wish to fit into a culture of agreeableness. We try to achieve this by pleasing others.

My former college roommate ― who came from Dallas, Texas ― used to make fun of the way I interacted with Swedish friends, imitating with precision the way we frantically nod our heads in affirmation, interspersing a pendulum of singing sounds with bursts of “ja ja ja” (yes). The sole purpose of our conversations is unequivocal agreement, so they typically consist of vague and unfocused remarks so that they can always be given an accommodating turn if we sense an impending disagreement. Otherwise, we refer to a reservoir of frivolous statements to fill any space that risks being taken for a pointed silence.

Imagine how diabolically opposed this quest for acceptance is to what we actually need from each other, and how it makes us even more receptive to the notion that happiness is a currency ― one that prospers independent of meaningful conversations, close relationships or a sense of purpose or engagement. Believing our well-being is defined in the eyes of others, we keep renovating our already renovated kitchens to prove that we have our shit together, and when we still feel like crap, we make sure to wake up with a smile and stop eating carbs after 6 p.m.

We’ve consistently raised the bar of our expectations, resulting in the illusion that we can – and should! – be euphorically happy all the time.

And you can’t really blame us. We’ve been promised unconditional happiness since we were kids, so we go looking for it: in the self-help corner or in IKEA’s kitchen department.

And we look for happiness in our partners, hoping they will embody all the things that are missing from our lives. I remember my disappointment when asking my grandma why she married my grandpa, and she said, “Well, he had money and he was very good at his job,” and resumed her crossword puzzle.

Not exactly a Disney love story, but having grown up during the Second World War, she had different expectations for her life. Stability and security were happiness to her, and although the marriage wasn’t perfect, they didn’t get divorced like 50 percent of Swedes currently do, and she didn’t scarf down psychotropic drugs like 20 percent of us do now.

I’m not saying there aren’t times when medication is necessary, and surely self-help books have been of use to many people. However, we were never meant to go running after happiness in the first place. Such a pursuit happens at the expense of all the things that already produce happiness as a byproduct. What we should ask for is meaning, and we can find that even in the tedious, sad and harsh episodes of life.

Carl-Johan Karlsson is a freelance writer based in New York focusing on politics and culture. He holds a bachelor’s degree in international politics from the American University of Paris and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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