Across almost every study on happiness out there, there’s a ton of evidence that global levels of stress, anxiety, and depression is rising across all age groups and demographics. We’re working longer, spending less time with our family, and feel trapped in jobs and relationships we hate.
But, one country in particular seems to buck the trend. And that country is Sweden.
For context here, the World Happiness Report has consistenly put Sweden in its top 10 happiest countries in the world for the last decade.
But that’s not all – whether it’s their democracy, lack of corruption, trust between citizens, social cohesion, gender equality, or fair distribution of incomes, Sweden is killing it in pretty much every global comparison out there.
So, I went to Sweden to find out the science-backed secrets of lifelong happiness.
😀 What is Happiness?
Now, the truth is, I’ve had my fair share of struggles with happiness, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got plenty of things to be grateful for and moments of joy in my life, but when it comes to that elusive, long-lasting type of happiness, I’ve had some trouble finding it.
I’ve tried all the classic advice – journalling, meditation, exercise, you name it. But I still can’t shake that underlying feeling of emptiness.
I think part of the problem is that I’m not really too sure what happiness even is. Obviously I can recognise when I feel happy or unhappy, but it’s just such a complex emotion involving other similar things – like joy, gratitude, and meaning – that it’s hard to see what we’re actually aiming for when we talk about being ‘happier’.
And even though we have pretty accurate ways to measure things like body temperature or heart rate, we can only ever roughly estimate what happiness means for an individual. Like, we all have a slightly different definition of what it means to be happy and things that actually make us happy.
Plus, even if we had a precise definition of happiness, there are different categories of happiness too. For example, there’s natural happiness – which is the feeling of joy and satisfaction that comes from doing things we enjoy – and there’s synthetic happiness – which is the type of happiness that we create for ourselves when things are not naturally enjoyable or pleasant.
Broadly, though, I think most people would agree that when we’re talking about ‘how to be happier’, we’re looking for increased life satisfaction (around work, health and relationships), while also having better control over our emotions (in order to synthesise positive feelings when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or doing something we dislike).
So, this is the angle that I’m going to take as I try to find out the secrets of being happier.
🤝 Social Connection
Research from Harvard, Yale and other laboratories have shown that having social connections with other people can lead to significant increases in our happiness levels, regardless of whether that connection is romantic, friendly, work-related or just those trivial day-to-day daily interaction we have with strangers.
And as happiness researcher and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, Miek Wiking, says, it could be the most important factor to living a happier life: “There is a lot of factors that impact happiness, everything from biology to income levels to the city we live in. But I think the best predictor we see in the data of whether people are happy or not is whether they’re satisfied or happy with their relationships.”
One of the most compelling studies on this is a Harvard study that tracked the lives of 724 people in order to learn what makes people happy and healthy. And over the course of the 90 year study, one key finding emerged: close social relationships – not wealth, IQ, or ‘success’ – was the secret ingredient of a happy life.
But, it’s not just our relationship with people that’s skewed. So is our relationship with money.
A 2020 paper that reviewed data from 27 different studies on the impact of income on happiness (“Income inequality and social comparisons: A meta-analytic review”.) found that after a certain threshold (around $60,000-$75,000), increases in income were not significantly associated with increases in happiness or life satisfaction.
As Miek Wiking says: “Once we get to a certain level of income, an additional $100/month is not going to impact how people feel about their lives. So with money, like everything else, we see diminshing marginal returns.”
So, it’s not that surprising to learn that Sweden’s relatively low average income – at least when we compare it to the US for example – has seemingly little impact on the happiness of the population. Plus, Sweden has a strong social welfare system providing a basic standard of living for everyone and value collective achivements over individual accomplishements, leading to less emphasis on high salaries or prestigious jobs as markers of success.
But, while having lots of money won’t make you happier, I still think what we do with our money can play a significant role in our overall happiness.
For example, if you’ve got money you can access the kind of social interactions that can buffer stress and make you feel more satisfied. Or you can hire people to help you clean the house or babysit, which then helps you to get more sleep and spend more time with your family, and other things like that that do have a direct impact on our happiness.
The other thing we can do with our money is give it to someone else.
Studies, like that done my Elizabeth Dunn in 2008, have shown that giving to others can make us just as happy as receiving something for ourselves. I also really like Dave Ramsey’s take on this which is that money actually has the power to magnify your character; so if you’re a generous person, money can be used to expand the reach of your generosity, instead of just adopting the attitude that desiring money is philosophically bad.
Related to this is the impact of work on our happiness.
One of the major findings of the Harvard longitudinal study on happiness is that, surprisingly, the total time we spend working doesn’t seem to determine our level of happiness.
But, it’s not just working hard on anything. The key is to find meaning in the work that we do.
I can certainly say for myself that doing the research for these articles and sharing what I’ve learnt gives me a ton of meaning and happiness, because I’m not only levelling up own knowledge but doing it in a way that helps other people too. The fact that I get next to no money for doing this work doesn’t bother me.
In Sweden they seem to have a very similar mentality around this too. One study conducted by Eurostat found that Sweden had one of the highest rates of job satisfaction in the European Union. And, in another study, the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth found that Swedish employees prioritise the healthy work-life balance and flexible workign hours of their staff, which contributes to their overall welfare and happiness.
But, even if we’re in the category of people who don’t find meaning in our work, there’s evidence to suggest that being more focused on our work can bring us more happiness too.
This has been proven through a study by Killingsworth and Gilbert, involving over 2000 people, which showed that regardless of whether the activity they were doing was enjoyable or not, those who focused on it reported higher levels of happiness than those whose minds were wandering.
So, what this means is that even if somebody was engaged in an activity like writing an essay or cleaning their house or reading something boring, if they were focused on what they were doing they tended to report as happier than if their mind was drifting elsewhere.
The takeaway then is that if we want to be happier when working we not only need to find more meaning in the work we do, but we should try to focus more in our day-to-day lives as that leads to increased levels of happiness and minfulness.
That same study by Killingsworth and Gilbert also found that people are generally happier when they are engaged in physical activity, regardless of the activity’s intensity level.
So, this is why I tried to do a lot of walking when I was in Stockholm.
By the way, if you haven’t been to Stockholm before, it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve every been to so I highly recommend everyone checks it out. The city sits at a point where the Baltic Sea and the waters of Lake Mälaren collide, creating this stunning landscape of interconnected waterways and green spaces that’s quite literally the perfect to explore.
Unfortunately, walking isn’t something I typically make time at home, where my routine is usually jam-packed with seemingly more productive tasks than taking 30 to 45 minutes out of my day to go for a stroll. But there’s just so much evidence that walking is good for our happiness and mental health.
One study from the Journal of Affective Disorders, for example, found that going for a walk early in the morning to expose yourself to morning light leads to huge increases in happiness and well being. Basically, the morning sun helps to regulate our circadian rhythm and signals our body to wake up and start the day, helping us feel more alert and energised.
Everywhere I went in Sweden there were people running, cycling and just enjoying life outdoors. So, it’s no wonder that they’ve also got some of the lowest rates of obesity in Europe and one of the highest life expectancies in the world.
Health and happiness go hand in hand.
So, what have I learnt about happiness from my trip to Sweden?
Well, it’s clear that there’s no single formula or magic bullet to guarantee happiness in our lives. Instead, happiness is a journey: a constant work in progress that requires us to find balance in various aspects of our life, including our social connections, our relationships with money, our work, and our health.
It’s simply not possible to meditate or journal or think ourselves into happiness. We need to maintain and nurture positive relationships, find meaning and focus in our work and prioritise our health.
So many of us get caught up in just one area of our life hoping that one day the things we’re doing will make us happy. But this is the completely wrong way to think about happiness.
We need to stop obssessing about a happy ending because true happiness is found in the small things and small moments we experiece every single day.