Tag Archives: Sweden

Read of the month: a trip around the world through ‘The Atlas of Happiness’

2020 is not a year to travel wide and far around the world. Instead, I took a trip through my last happiness read of the month. ‘Atlas of Happiness’ by Helen Russell discusses ideas about happiness from 30 countries. Although I consider myself somewhat of a connaisseur of happiness around the world, to my surprise only two of the concepts figured on the blog before: Pura Vida (Costa Rica) and the obvious one – Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

The ideas in the book look at happiness in a broad sense, ranging from the melancholic Saudade in Brazil/Portugal to the Danish happiness at work, arbejdsglaede. A few cultures emphasis the good life – joie de vivre in Canada/France, even by simply doing nothing – dolce far niente in Italy. Others are about dedication to an activity, like the Greek meraki, or about life in a community – ubuntu in South Africa and aloha in Hawaii. Oh, and some are just outright crazy – like kalsarikannit in Finland. Apparently, some Finns experience happiness in getting way too drunk, home alone, dressed in nothing but underwear…

The book should not be seen as a serious or academic exploration of what makes country happy. Do not expect deeper analysis of cultural features that explain why these ideas of happiness arise in certain contexts. Instead, it should be seen as an anecdotal exploration of stories people tell themselves about happiness, through the coffee chats Helen Russell has with individuals from the 30 countries she discusses. Let me share my three favourite stories…

Smultronställe: Sweden

‘Smultronställe’ literally means ‘wild strawberry place’. The term originates in a children book in the early 20th century, and further gained prominence by a Ingmar Bergman movie from 1957. In that movie, an old grumpy man opened a door to get back to the world he knew from his youth: indeed, the figurative meaning of the term is a pleasant place with sentimental and personal value.

According to Russell, a smultronställe combines two things: a sense of nostalgia, and an escape from the world. It bring back memories from earlier in life, to a simpler time. But it can also simply relate to a place where we can flee our daily concerns, often in nature.

Of course I asked myself whay my smultronställe is. I have to admit that I can’t really pick a place that meets all the requirements of the Swedish concept. Rather than going for a place from my youth that combines nostalgia and refuge, I’d pick the beach in The Hague, where I live since only one year. But we always go to the same spot; in the summer, we spent great moments with family and friends at the beach club; in the winter, we simply went for walks. Walking near the sea always helps to forget worries, and I think that helps to qualify as a smultronställe.

Wabi-sabi (侘寂): Japan

We all strive for perfection. The idea of Wabi-sabi (Japan) counters this dominant philosophy of what constitutes a good life: it is about appreciating the imperfections that we inevitably face. Wabi-sabi can be about appreciating that with age come both wrinkles and wisdom.

The concept even notes how imperfection adds an additional layer of meaning: apparently, in Japan it is a thing to repair broken ceramics with through kintsugi: ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’. Instead of throwing away the shards of a broken plate, joining them together with gold where the shards broke creates a beautiful ‘new’ object.

A great idea – we often believe something has to be new, and beautiful, to be worthwhile. But sometimes imperfections are just as pretty, and what is old and imperfect carries a lot more value than something new and spotless.

Kintsugi (golden joinery), the Japanese art to make items prettier through repair with gold or other precious material. Image found here.

Tarab (طرب): Syria

Given its troubled recent history, Syria is not the first place I’d think to find new thinking about happiness. But according to Russell’s research, the Arabic concept of ‘tarab’ can be found there.

Tarab relates to the feeling you can achieve when deeply engaging in music – be it as a player, as a listener, or through the interaction between a musician and their audience. It is the trance you can achieve when there is a strong connection. (Traditional) Arabic music is different than Western music, with a prominent role for the oud, an Arabic type of lute). Songs also can last for minutes and minutes, depending on how the performer feels and how the audience responds.

Say Arabic music and the first name that comes up – in the Arabic world itself and by those initiated to it in the West – is Umm Kulthum, a singer from Egypt from the 1960s and 1970s who’s still incredibly popular today. If you’re open to it, I am sure that listening for half an hour will drag you into it as well – that is experiencing tarab!

Three new ideas about happiness! If you want to let me know which one resonates most with you, write me @ jasper [at] forastateofhappiness.com.

The Nanny State: repression of happiness?

It’s a pedagogic dilemma all parents will face: should we be strict to our children and prohibit them to do things that are bad for them? Or should we give them the freedom to learn for themselves that sand is not tasty, that you can fall if you climb a tree and that a drink too many has dire consequences the next day?

At the state level, similar dilemmas arise. Social-democrats traditionally don’t scare away from a dose of paternalism to educate citizens. Libertarians, on the other hand, abhor states that coerce a certain type of behaviour. Which recipe works best to develop a happy society?

Two weeks ago, I addressed the question “does size matter” – when it’s about the size of the state and happiness levels, that is. The evidence indicated that some of the happiest states are smaller countries, and that after a certain level? There is – surprisingly – a positive correlation between higher tax and higher life satisfaction. Does that also mean that a more active government, a Nanny State, could contribute to higher levels of happiness?

Nanny State Index

Republicans in the US and liberals in EU States – such as Dutch PM Rutte – agree on one thing: big government is big enough, and the state shouldn’t interfere too much with individuals’ life. That’s also the thought behind the Nanny State Index. It has been developed by liberal or libertarian think-tanks, and maps the strictness of regulation affecting personal choice in the 28 countries of the EU.

The Index lists four areas: e-cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol, and food. There is quite a difference in the freedom of access to this products across the EU. For instance, in Sweden alcohol is only available in state stores and e-cigarettes are effectively prohibited in Belgium.

Altogether, two of the paternalistic Nordics, Finland and Sweden, top the list. They stay ahead of UK and Ireland. As a result of strict rules on tobacco and so-called ‘sin taxes’ on unhealthy foods and drinks, Hungary completes the top-5. Denmark, which one might expect to be in sync with paternalist Nordics, only ranks 12th. On the lower end of the scale, we find Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. The freest country of all is… the Czech Republic.

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org


Does repression, or freedom, bring happiness?

Is there any correlation visible between being a nanny and low and high happiness levels? The evidence is difficult to interpret: the three top-1o countries of the World Happiness Report rank at different places in the Nanny State Index. Swedish is on top of the list, the Netherlands at the bottom, and to confuse the picture further, Denmark is mid-way in the table.

The implication might be the following. Policies may work out differently in different settings. It’s probably the same with children: all are different. Some kids will exploit freedom and end up in troubles; other will feel their confidence strengthened and will be good and happy citizens.

The optimal income for happiness

What is the optimal income for happiness? How much happier are people with a large bank account than those who suffer through the last days of each month? Scientists have done a lot of effort to investigate the relation between money and happiness.

The conventional wisdom in happiness economics states that, indeed, happiness levels rise with income, to a certain point. After this point, the impact on happiness of an additional euro, pound are dollar is virtually zero: more money does not mean more happiness. But is it possible to exactly measure the cut-off point? That is, can we measure what the ideal income is, generating the best happiness bang for the buck?

Eugenio Proto of Warwick University and Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota claim to have the answer. Their research attests that life satisfactions reaches its maximum level at an income level of $30,000, or about the level of Equatorial Guinea using World Bank data (though French people aren’t necessarily the happiest ones).

But Proto and Rustichini’s research reveals there is even more: after this point, people even become less happy. They  explain that this effect arises due to changes in what they label the ‘aspiration level’ of people with a below average income in rich countries.

Simply speaking, when incomes rise, the gap between the have-lots and have-less become bigger. When surrounded by wealthier people, people have higher aspirations for their own life, often irrationally> as the gap between reality and dreams increase, life satisfaction diminishes.

Their data set out the income level versus the likeliness of reporting the highest level of happiness. People in a country with an income per head of $5,600 are 12% less likely to report the maximum number than in a country with an income of $15,000. As incomes rise, the effect disappears. And after $30,000, the link even becomes negative.

What does this mean? Of course, you may consider moving to Equatorial Guinea if you live in a richer country but make less than the holy number of $30,000. Jokes aside, there is more  at stake here. Higher incomes aren’t necessarily a sign of progress. They might be caused by longer working hours, more overtime and less time for leisure, all factors that bring down happiness.

But maybe the real effect displayed by the study is the cost of inequality. Earlier studies have shown that it is not only the absolute figure of income that determines your happiness. It is also about your income relative to what you could make. If you make less than your friends, your colleagues, or than your did in a previous job, this might cause total misery. The moral of the story is simple: if countries care about our quality of life, they should seek to control income inequality. Equal countries, like Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all in the top-five of happiest nations. At least, their high government spending seem to be good for something. Money can’t buy you happiness, the adagium goes, but maybe their high taxes do?