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In world’s ‘happiest’ countries, signs of a happiness gap

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Nordic countries regularly appear at the top of an annual list of the world's happiest nations, but their reputation as "happiness superpowers" masks the difficulties of a significant part of the population, a new analysis shows. Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland led the 2018 ranking of the World Happiness Report, and Sweden wasn't far behind, placing ninth. But in the five Nordic countries, an average of 12.3 per cent of the population is "struggling" or "suffering," according to a report by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

The happiness gap is being felt by the youth.

The happiness gap is being felt by the youth.

"Something doesn't rhyme," said Michael Birkjaer, an analyst with the Happiness Research Institute and an author of the report, titled "In the Shadow of Happiness," referring to the uneven distribution of happiness across the Nordic countries. "It's the youth driving the inequality to the highest degree."

The report, based on research conducted from 2012 to 2016, asked people to assess their satisfaction with life on a scale of zero to 10. Those who answered seven or higher were categorized as "thriving," those who responded five or six were classified as "struggling," and those who said four or lower were deemed to be "suffering." Most respondents in the Nordic countries reported satisfaction of seven to nine.

The Nordic states have a sophisticated social net that means that young people face less pressure regarding education, health or jobs than do many of their peers elsewhere. The countries have some of the world's highest taxes, but schools and hospitals are free, parental leave is generous, and unemployment benefits and care for the elderly help those no longer working. But with that security and help come expectations to do well, and pressure to be as happy as one's peers.

The leading factors in the region associated with well-being are general health, mental health, income and employment, the report concludes.

"General, as well as mental health, is much more closely associated with inequality in wellbeing than other circumstances of life, such as employment or income levels," the analysis says, adding that the Nordic countries had observed a rise in poor mental health, particularly among young people and women.

The trends highlighted in the report appear to be backed up by various national studies conducted in the region. In Sweden, the number of people with depression increased 20 per cent in 10 years, the national board on health and welfare said last year, a rise that was particularly pronounced among the young. In Denmark, people ages 16 to 24 are more lonely than are people in their grandparents' generation, a national survey of 180,000 people conducted this year by the Danish Health Authority showed.

Birkjaer of the Happiness Research Institute noted that a performance culture and the growing use of social media contributed to depression, loneliness and stress.

"These problems are difficult to solve," he said. "Let's say social media are a major cause, then what do we do? Ban them? Something else would come in their place."

The consequences go far beyond the individual, however. "Unhappiness is very costly for society," the report notes. "That a growing number of people are struggling or suffering has socioeconomic consequences. The problem is particularly associated with absence from work due to illness, low productivity and the consumption of health services."

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