Happiness in Sweden

In general, happiness is very high among the Nordic countries. Sweden ranks at about the same level as Norway and Finland, but after Denmark. Although Sweden does not have higher economic wealth than the US, Swedes rate themselves as slightly happier than Americans do. The combination of high interpersonal trust and an individualistic social culture may well explain why Sweden and other Nordic countries stand out. A study also suggests that it may be because we have stronger welfare states than almost any other country in the world1.

Although Sweden is well positioned in international comparisons, we have not become happier over time. According to the “World Values Survey”, average life satisfaction in 1981 was slightly higher than in 2006. According to the Central Statistics Office of Sweden, the proportion of the population who report worry and anxiety has increased slightly since the 1980s. The same tendency can be seen in several other Western countries. What can explain this trend? One possible explanation is that Sweden, as in many other developed countries, has reached a critical level of the large-scale social factors that are important to happiness. For example, Sweden has had a high economic development level, a high level of trust and an individualistic social culture for decades. It is possible that citizens are to some extent adapt to changes in these factors, especially material wealth. But it is unlikely that the adaptation theory is sufficient, because it doesn’t explain the large differences in happiness between countries, or why some countries are still getting happier in similar socioeconomic conditions.

Another theory is that negative social developments might prevent happiness from increasing. For example, some argue that the increasing amount of choices that people face will lead to frustration. There may be some truth in this. But the explanation is also at odds with the research suggesting that happiness is higher in countries with high personal, economic and political freedom2.

A US study implies that people’s time consumption can explain the small or nonexistent change in happiness over time that is evident in many Western countries3. In the US people do not spend their time doing more enjoyable things today than they did in the 1960s. It is possible that the effective use of time explains why happiness levels in Sweden have been so stable.

  • 1. Pacek A, Radcliff B. Assessing the Welfare State: The Politics of Happiness. Perspectives on Politics. 2008;6(02):267-277.
  • 2. Veenhoven R. Quality-of-Life in Individualistic Society. Social Indicators Research. 1999 Okt 1;48(2):159-188.
  • 3. Krueger A, Kahneman D, Fischler C, Schkade D, Schwarz N, Stone A. Time Use and Subjective Well-Being in France and the U.S. Social Indicators Research. 2009;93(1):7-18.