How to Be Happy
Public policies based on culture are making people happy.
Posted June 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
The happiest societies are not limited to the individual.
Imagine how happy you would be if you could afford healthcare, live in a safe community, send your kids to college or first-rate vocational training programs, know that everyone around you has a roof over their head, and were granted access to services without racial or sexual bias.
The United States ranks 19th on the World Happiness Index. What can we learn from the strategies of Finland (#1), Denmark (#2), Switzerland (#3), Iceland (#4), and the Netherlands (#5)? They're not ideal places, and, yes, their affluence is key, but what are they doing that we can add to our lives here?
Finland is known for sisu, which can be defined as selfless stamina and a rough, fearless outlook that is motivational. Applied to its housing policies, for example, sisu is behind the program called Housing First: You are entitled to have a permanent home, but the rest is up to you. The idea is that with a place of your own, you’ll have more sisu to solve your other problems, from ending substance use to getting job training to accessing mental health services.
Denmark is famous for hygge. That outlook is reflected in its generous approach to childcare. From paid leave for both parents to a 70 percent subsidy for childcare for children six months to five years old, the policy keeps families from stressing out.
Gezellig, in Dutch, means, more or less, cozy-schmozy, a warm, head-to-toe feeling, an inner glow. When you’re physically and mentally healthy, you feel gezellig. The latest craze in the Netherlands is cow hugging, which takes gezellig to new levels.
Due to its small population and tiny geography, Iceland is a natural place for community cohesion. Well-being is a focus through increased government support for gender equality, fair housing, and access to medical care.
As Icelandic governmental psychologist Dóra Guðmundsdóttir noted, “the biggest predictor for unhappiness is having financial difficulty. Those who find it difficult to make ends meet have the lowest happiness score of all groups, lower than those without a job and those with the lowest income.”
Who are the leaders creating policies that lead to happy people?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but all of the top-five happiest nations are either led by women or have a majority or near-majority of women in top posts. Sanna Marin is the Prime Minister (PM) of Finland. As the Social Democratic Party leader, she has a cabinet made up of 12 women out of 19 ministers. Mette Frederiksen is the PM of Denmark. Katrín Jakobsdóttir is PM of Iceland. Switzerland has a Federal Council of seven ministers rather than one leader, and the current Council has three women, all in prominent positions. Holland's PM is Mark Rutte, but Sigrid Kaag is its First Deputy PM and there are five women ministers in its 12-person cabinet.
We experience happiness as individuals, but well-being is often due to situations far beyond our personal lives.
Haas, Scott (2020). Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance. New York: Hachette.
Nylund, Joanna (2018). Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. New York: Running Press.
Wiking, Meik (2017) The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Secrets to Happy Living, New York: William Morrow.
Rau, Thomas (2009) The Swiss Secret to Optimal Health. New York: Berkley.