The evidence on higher levels of happiness in Nordic countries has been long and persistent. Could it have something to do with them having less social inequality (less envy and resentment) and more ethnic cohesion (although that is changing)?
As Will Wilkinson’s excellent recent paper on happiness research notes, it’s hard to find consistent results on the well-being consequences of income inequality. As Will argues, one reason for the mixed findings is that the effects of various factors on happiness are ‘culturally and ideologically mediated’. So the impact of income inequality will depend on how intrinsically important equality is seen to be, how justified the differences that are perceived to exist are seen to be, and how people perceive their own prospects. If people in Nordic countries value equality highly, and that is what their society produces, that might help explain why they do well in happiness and life satisfaction surveys.
This does not, however, mean that their model can be easily transposed elsewhere. Other countries with fairly low income inequality like Germany consistently do quite poorly in surveys of happiness and life satisfaction. A 2003 paper by Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch (can’t find a link) showed income inequality and happiness inequality trends over the period 1975 to 1995 and found that while income inequality rose in the US and Britain happiness inequality was stable or falling.
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