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  • The Happiest People on Earth?Scandinavian Narratives of Guilt and Discontent
  • Elisabeth Oxfeldt, Andrew Nestingen, and Peter Simonsen1

Happy Nations

Since the first publication in 2012 of the United Nations' World Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, and Sachs), the Scandinavians have repeatedly been ranked as the happiest nations in the world.2 This, as the reports argue, is not because of an intrinsic "happy" disposition among a people, but because of a welfare state that creates the conditions for high measures of happiness among its citizens. We are thus talking about evaluative happiness understood as overall contentment with life and its possibilities (provided by a social structure), as opposed to affective happiness understood as a feeling of joy at a particular moment. As revealed by the 2012 World Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, and Sachs), [End Page 429] it turns out that one form of happiness does not necessarily entail the other. Denmark, for instance, ranked no. 1 on the evaluative happiness list while ranking a mere no. 100 on that of affective happiness. Whereas people in the instance of evaluative happiness place themselves on a scale from one to ten in terms of having the worst or best possible life,3 in the case of affective happiness, they report on whether they felt happy yesterday. One can surely question the value of such rankings, as Sara Ahmed (2010), for instance, does in the introduction to The Promise of Happiness.4 Yet, from a cultural-studies perspective, it would be mistaken to dismiss them on such scientific grounds considering the overall impact they have. Regardless of whether people may be self-reporting in dubious manners, whether those reporting are truly representative of the nation, and whether people are in reality replying to the same questions (to suggest but a few possible objections), the happiness reports evoke massive discursive reflection and response. In the political, social, and cultural arena, they clearly succeed in begging questions of welfare-state happiness. Whether there is a causal relationship between evaluative and affective happiness is unclear; yet what is clear is that the gap between the two types of happiness is productive, prompting a great number of (counter-) narratives about the unhappy, "happy" Scandinavian. [End Page 430]

When it comes to evaluative happiness (i.e., general life satisfaction), the first World Happiness Report links happiness to national wealth, social equality, trust, and quality of governance—such as that of Denmark (Helliwell, Layard, and Sachs 2012, 7). The Nordic welfare model has indeed been based on core values of equal opportunity, social solidarity, and security for all (Esping-Andersen 1990), and at this point in time, the Scandinavian countries generally top lists measuring not only happiness, but also wealth, gender equality, class equality, social trust, and social mobility.5 This status has garnered a great deal of attention, not least in the English-speaking part of the world. After the Cold War, the Nordic welfare model has appeared to many as the only viable alternative to free-market capitalism; The Economist, for instance, published a leader in 2013 ("Next Supermodel") suggesting that the "New Nordic Model" is the "Next Supermodel" that others need to follow. In the US 2016 presidential elections, the Scandinavian welfare-state model was once more hailed as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders regarded Nordic-style policies as exemplary of democratic socialism (Partanen 2016b).6 While Sanders's visions of a more equal distribution of wealth enthused many Democrats, especially among younger generations, his opponent Hillary Clinton wrote it off in a US context, stating that while she liked Denmark, "we are not Denmark" (Partanen 2016b).7 Still, in the eyes of many people, the Scandinavians have succeeded in constructing welfare-state societies that also serve the pursuit of happiness—a salient value for so many Western nations and their citizens.8 [End Page 431]

Yet, again we ask: What does it mean to be a citizen of a "happy" country? And how does it feel? A striking number of contemporary Scandinavian narratives—written in a variety of genres and covering a wide range of media, from film and literature to educational material—indicate that being "happy"—in the sense of living...


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pp. 429-446
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