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The 4 Virtues of World Happiness

The root of national happiness has been consistent over centuries.

Key points

  • The UN World Happiness Report found a historical pattern of virtue in the countries with the happiest people.
  • Nordic countries exhibit a cluster of four recurring historical virtues that are less consistent in less happy countries.
  • Psychologists confirm that whether affluent or not, citizens are happier and psychologically healthier when socially cohesive.
  • Equality leads to quality institutions and quality governance, which is enhanced by universal and free education for all citizens.
Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai
Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai

The 2020 United Nations World Happiness Report, in its article, “History & the Hunt for the Root Cause,” hypothesized that past choices play a part in the psychological functioning of whole countries. The authors pointed to a historical pattern of virtue in the countries with the happiest people.

The Report ranks 156 countries by their citizens’ perception of how happy they are. Since the first World Happiness Report in 2012, the citizens of the same countries consistently rank themselves as most happy. Their happiness is associated with a cluster of co-occurring factors that are strongest in the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

Addressing the “Nordic exceptionalism” and “cycles of virtue,” the 2020 World Happiness Report authors found a cluster of four recurring historical virtues of Nordic countries that are less consistent in less happy nations.

1. Cohesion

Psychologists Delhey and Dragolov have researched cohesion in 34 countries over 25 years, combining the private Bertelsmann Stiftung Social Cohesion Radar and the European Quality of Life Survey of individual well-being based on life evaluation and psychological functioning. They explained that resilient social relations, positive emotional connectedness between people and the community, and a pronounced focus on the common good characterize cohesion.

They found that citizens are happier and psychologically healthier when they are able to create togetherness and solidarity among themselves and that social cohesion promotes a happier life for everyone, whether affluent or not.

2. Equality

The Happiness Report suggested that a root cause of the high well-being of Nordic citizenry may be that the Nordic countries don’t have the history of feudalism and serfdom that characterized continental Europe and Russia and manifested in America as slavery. Rather, Nordic farmers were independent, and many owned the land they cultivated. Farmers held significant political power, even within the parliaments.

The authors asserted that in more equal societies, people trust each other more and that levels of social trust are remarkably stable over a relatively long historical period. This cultural value of equality extends to newcomers. The ten happiest countries consist of 17% foreign-born people, twice that of other countries. The happiest countries integrate immigrants into their communities, and both newcomers and longstanding citizens report improvements in financial status and high levels of well-being and social trust.

3. Quality Institutions

The Happiness Report suggested that social trust contributes to building better institutions. By the 16th century, local parish churches in the Nordic countries were inclusive, egalitarian, representative, and monetarily accountable. By the late 19th century, independent court systems able to handle corruption-related matters were prevalent. Nordic government institutions are also citizen-oriented and accountable.

4. Mass Education

The Nordic countries invested heavily in universal and free education for all citizens. Like the founders of the United States, they believed that a well-educated citizenry self-governs better and more cohesively.

Although the Nordic countries consistently score the highest happiness numbers, other countries regularly found at the top of international comparisons of life satisfaction – Switzerland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia – are characterized by the same four attributes. These include well-functioning democracy and high-quality democratic institutions, generous and effective provision for citizens in various adversities, low levels of crime and corruption, and social-economic equality in which citizens feel free and trust one another and governmental institutions.


Delhey, J., & Dragolov, G. (2016). Happier together. Social cohesion and subjective well-being in Europe. Journal of International Psychology. Jun 2016.

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