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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Want to be happy?

by Philip Martin | June 8, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

I've just read this year's "World Happiness Report," which is "written by a group of independent experts acting in their personal capacities."

Which means that "any views expressed in the report do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency or programme of the United Nations," which paid the independent experts to write it. Which seems a reasonable CYA clause considering how nebulous a concept happiness can be.

Some of us have a hard time identifying what, if anything, might make us happy. And after identifying it, it still has to be achieved.

And a lot of people feel bereft after having achieved what they thought would make them happy. We are nothing if not complicated creatures. Never satisfied. And if we are satisfied, then maybe we're bored.

I was fooling around with the "World Happiness Report" because I noticed a paradox. According to the experts, Scandinavian countries traditionally report a high level of happiness. Finland has been "the happiest country" in the world for four years running. Iceland came in at No. 2. Denmark is No. 3, followed by Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Norway, New Zealand and Austria. (The U.S. is No. 14, up a couple of spots from its 2017-2019 score.)

But don't Scandinavian countries traditionally have some of the highest suicide rates in the world? After all, some winter days in the most northern regions consist of more than 20 hours of darkness, which contribute to the form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, which has been known to correlate with higher rates of suicide.

Not anymore they don't. While historically these countries have had high suicide rates--Sweden had the most suicides in the developed world during the '60s--their governments responded to what they viewed as a crisis with social welfare and mental health services, and now the suicide rates in these countries are below the rate of the U.S. (16.1 suicides per 100,000 people). By contrast, Lesotho has a suicide rate of 72.4, by far the highest in the world.

Guyana is second at 40.3. Russia is ninth, 25.1; and South Africa, which surrounds the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, is 10th at 23.5. Arkansas' suicide rate measured at 18.7 in 2020, which ranked 31st among U.S. states and territories. Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the U.S.--25.8--while New Jersey, at 8.6, has the lowest.

Even if my bias had survived testing and Scandinavian countries did have high suicide rates, would that necessarily negate the high happiness ratings? After all, there's more to life than existence. You wouldn't expect happy people to kill themselves, but you might expect people who have been conditioned to keep going, despite high levels of background pain and a dearth of joy, because they believe they'll have their reward in the sweet bye and bye. Stoics are probably less likely to kill themselves than epicureans, right?

And maybe having a society that's not hung up on the idea of suicide being this terrible taboo might contribute to overall happiness. Maybe we should get a bunch of independent experts to study this.

Anyway, people who have never been to Scandinavia will insist that the Scandinavian countries probably aren't all that happy, because how could anyone be happy under, you know, socialism? How can anyone be happy when they don't have to worry about being ruined financially by medical bills?

Others might question whether happiness in itself is a worthy goal. Maybe the pursuit of happiness is a kind of trap. and we ought to focus on higher-minded achievements.

If you accept that the citizens of these northern European countries are on average pretty happy and you're looking for ways in which you might be happier, you might look at ways in which our cultures differ. And one of the main ways is the influence of what is called Jantelagen, or the "Law of Jante," on these societies.

Jantelagen was codified by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel "A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks," about a fictional small Danish town of Jante, a kind of Nordic Mayberry, but the attitudes go back at least hundreds of years. Sandemose boiled them down to 10 commandments, all of which are subsumed by the first rule: "You're not to think you are anything special."

Some of the others are: You're not to imagine yourself better than we are. You're not to think you know more than we do. You're not to think you are more important than we are.

Sandemose added an 11th law, which he called "the penal code of Jante": Maybe you don't think I know something about you.

Jantelagen is a real force in these societies, to the extent there's a backlash among younger people who can't figure out how they can become Instagram influencers while observing the law. More seriously, some Swedes and Danes and Norse find the code oppressive, as it discourages bragging, conspicuous consumption, and requires them to deflect praise. It requires one to be low-key about one's achievements.

For instance, there's a story about an American tourist chatting up a stranger, who happens to be a Nobel Prize-winning Swedish scientist, in a Stockholm bar. The American has just arrived from Oslo, a city that delighted him. He goes on and on about the glories of Oslo, and finally asks the Swede if he's ever been there.

"Once," the Swede replies.

A lot of our parents tried to instill us with a sense of something like Jantelagen--in Karen's family, the oft-uttered phrase was "self-praise stinks."

Actually, self-praise is often a sigh of insecurity, a way of compensating for intimations of inadequacy. One of the things you can sometimes read by scrolling through someone's Facebook feed is the fragility of their ego.

American individualism--which proceeds from John Locke's idea of a "good society" as one in which individuals are free to pursue their private satisfactions independently of others-- emphasizes personal achievement and self-fulfillment.

But unchecked, ruthless individualism, as expressed primarily through a market mentality, has colonized every aspect of our lives and undermined all institutions of collective purpose. We are all encouraged to believe we are something special.

A dose of Jantelagen would not only make us a little nicer and easier to abide; it might make us happier.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at


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