Norway was rated the happiest country in the world in 2017, with Denmark in 2016, and with Switzerland in 2015. The happiness seems localized in the Nordic countries. Why are they so happy? What do they have that other countries do not?
There may be some factors that play into an overall happier country perhaps, genetics, geography, weather, maybe even cuisine. Is their happiness genetic? Unlikely. Though human emotions are ultimately genetic and biochemical, they are significantly influenced through social interactions. Naturally, this raises the question of whether their happiness is related to the Scandinavian weather or geography; it very well might be, as cold weather seems to correlate with happiness in that the top seven happiest countries are all exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere. However conversely, countries in the Northern Hemisphere also have a higher rate of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder that is caused by long nights during the winter season. These factors compounded together appear unlikely to have substantial effect on happiness as other countries with similar condition are not ranked as highly. Perhaps there is something else that allows for the Scandinavian inhabitants to rate their lives as happier than those of other countries. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses how happiness is an intrinsic property of human beings, though highly dependent on one’s environment. He dismisses the short-sighted view of happiness as achievement in material gratification and money-making; instead the social environment is more important.
Before we try to dissect what influences happiness in these countries, we must understand how it is measured. Gallup World Poll implements the World Happiness survey (a weighted survey), surveying 1000 – 2000 individuals from 155 countries. The World Happiness Survey measures 14 areas: (1) business & economic, (2) citizen engagement, (3) communications & technology, (4) diversity (social issues), (5) education & families, (6) emotions (well-being), (7) environment & energy, (8) food & shelter, (9) government and politics, (10) law & order (safely), (11) health, (12) religion and ethics, (13) transportation, and (14) work.
Instead of genetics, weather, geography, and material wealth, I move to argue that the Scandinavian social ideals are an important contributing factor to their overall happiness which underlies all of the areas above. It starts with Aksel Sandemose’s, a Danish-Norwegian writer, novel titled A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks written in 1933 that tells the story of Espen Arnakke, a resident of the town of Jante that lives by a set of ten commandments that is fascinatingly held in higher regard than the ten biblical commandments, the most well-recognized set of primitive laws the world has witnessed and lived by (Trotter, 2). Though Ten Commandments are simple in nature, they are fundamental to human history and civilization development. However, Sandemose’s set of commandments called Janteloven (Yante-lo-ven) or Law of Jante (Yante) has not received as much acknowledgement.
The commandments in Janteloven most certainly did not originate from Sandemose’s novel. He sought to formulate and describe the feelings and attitudes that were already ingrained in Danish and Norwegian societies, and therefore he explicitly laid out the laws in his fiction. Because of its grand appearance in the World War II era, a lot can be extrapolated about themes in the book. A discussion about this book and its ten commandments can be done in a variety of ways – philosophically or psychologically for example – but taking a sociological direction is most relevant when dealing with the implications of Janteloven on humanity; these laws still have significant influence on Nordic societies and therefore should be sufficiently analyzed.
According to Sandemose, Janteloven is the “…heart of [Nordic] language” (Sandemose, 1999 : 65-66). Sandemose may be a little misleading here. Indeed, the Law of Jante is not law, as in written in the country’s constitution, but it is regarded as a type of ethical law, determining how one should live and live well. As such, it is a way to interact with your neighbors: how you socialize, how you communicate with your words, body language, and facial expressions. Janteloven reads:
- You shall not believe you are anything.
- You shall not believe you are as much as us.
- You shall not believe you are wiser than us.
- You shall not imagine you are better than us.
- You shall not believe you know more than us.
- You shall not believe you are more than us.
- You shall not believe you are good for anything.
- You shall not laugh at us.
- You shall not believe anyone cares about you.
- You shall not believe you can teach us anything.
Each commandment is a successive step towards the destruction of our egocentrism. It is our egocentrism that creates a negative, perhaps hostile environment. There is no one better than you and no one less than you – pure social equality. Sandemose’s theme uses the attitudes in Janteloven to combat elitism and social hierarchy. He shows this when he explains Espen’s childhood – raised by an abused factory worker and constantly struggling to make ends meet. The elitists are often consumed by competition and ego. They strive to make themselves better, often at the expense of others (e.g. the lower class). This reality is not restricted to Sandemose’s novel; on the contrary, it is the very driving mechanism of the capitalist system which catapults nations like the United States to economic supremacy while simultaneously exacerbating its socio-political issues. The U.S. serves as a case study in understanding how the absence of Janteloven creates a difficult environment to generate a notion of political and individual Aristotelian happiness for the state and its citizens. The government is essentially controlled by powerful business people and private interest groups who inexhaustibly lobby congress and twist arms in order to serve their interests at the expense of the Average Joe. The most blatant example of this was in 2013, in which $300 billion in taxpayer money went to private military contractors to obtain generous government contracts (Gibson). Recently, when the U.S. Senate held a vote for military intervention in Syria, senators who gave a YES vote were given 83 percent more in campaign contributions then senators who gave a NO vote (Gibson). Such nefarious dealings creates an elitist hierarchy that can control the U.S., if the not world socially, politically, economically, and militaristically. Ultimately, this is the consequence of loose lobbying regulations. Converally, Nordic countries strictly control lobbying and which allows for a collective decision being made with utilitarian consequences. Janteloven focuses on the power of the collective rather than the power of the few. It is the medium by which it spreads a unifying principle. It creates class consciousness – respect and awareness of the collective.
Commandments One through Seven are not meant to be degrading, but it is to prevent individuals from developing an ego that puts down others and elevates themselves. Often conflicts can arise when individuals have control and an air of superiority. But in an environment where Janteloven is implemented a situation like this can be averted. Immediately, the collective will socially subdue an aggressive demagogue who seeks to rule over others through their self-proclaimed superiority. It is very much like bringing someone down a peg or two. No one likes a braggart, or a boaster. The social law of Jante arms the collective to diffuse them. Nobody likes misuses of political, social, or academic authority. These laws arms the collective to diffuse them, but it by no means tries to disparage or degrade the wealthy; it prevents those individuals from feeling that they are more powerful and superior. The ultimate goal of Janteloven is to prevent one person from controlling the will of the many, thwart the rising of an agitator into a prominent political or social status.
An eleventh commandment that, though not explicitly written, I believe to be the most important: Perhaps you don’t think we know anything about you? This is a shot across the bow heeding to the possibility that the class consciousness can easily turn on anyone who doesn’t follow Janteloven – the collective’s secret weapon. This keeps government officials, celebrities, and other popular high ranking individuals on their toes. Per this social law, society in the Nordic countries negatively looks down upon anyone who flaunts their individual success and achievement, keeping everyone on the same social footing. As such, I believe this to be the reason for the Scandinavian countries’ socialist attitude that contrast with the United States’ capitalist attitude. The former believes in complete social equality, social economy, and universal healthcare, free education, fifty-two weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave that leads to mass happiness among its citizens. The latter is built on competition and a free market independent of the government, leading to a capitalistic society with unprecedented disparity in wealth. By the same token, the U.S is ranked the fourteenth happiest country, not by any means terrible, but severely lacking when taking into consideration the country’s widely accepted statues as the most powerful and wealthiest country in the modern world. These countries simply have different aims: for the Scandinavians it’s happiness for its citizens, for the US it’s money, and this is certainly reflective of sociocultural aspects of each. Happiness ultimately comes down to socialization, how individuals interact and perceive each other. When a country is built on competition, competitors look at each other as inferiors, and that is precisely where problems begin to emerge. Yet when a country is built from the ground up on an infrastructure of social equality and inclusion, everyone works to improve as a collective.
Janteloven is sometimes called “Jante’s shield,” as if to portray protection from the individualistic societies. Ultimately these rules dictate how people carry themselves in society; to not have an individual with a braggadocio attitude, and be treated equally no matter your class, prestige, or power. Sandemose did not intend Janteloven to be used in only in his fictional town, but to be universal. However, there is an important downside to the practice and teachings of Janteloven. Though it hinders the uprising of individuals with a Narcissus-like ego, it can also suppress self-esteem significantly. In ever expanding first-world globalizing economies, low self-esteem and self-efficacy prevents Nordic countries from competing effectively in the global economy. In order to participate, individuals need to be proud, confident, and perhaps a tad-bit egotistical, and therein lies the debate about Janteloven. Do you strive for a happy life with the implementation of social equality, or do you try to become an economic powerhouse that can compete with the rest of the world? It is a difficult decision to make when other nations are playing by different social rules. Espen says that Janteloven was established for the neutrality and the greater good of a peaceful home. Ultimately, happiness and overall peace can manifest when all the inhabitants of a society views themselves as equal among their peers. This is easier said than done, because after all, we are all only human.
Jante’s law create class consciousness, and promote equality through socialization which seems very appealing, yet seemingly fantastical like a unicorn, although, in this case the unicorn is very real. It protects people from explicit and implicit biases, individual and institutional discrimination, and puts everyone on a level playing field socially. As such, this old social Nordic tradition, officially written out by Sandemose, is the reason for happiness in the Nordic countries.
Trotter, Stephen Richard. “Breaking the Law of Jante.” Myth and Nation, no.23, pp. 1-18.
New, Carl Gibson Reader Supported. “A $300 Billion Example of How Corporations Control Our Government.” Reader Supported News, readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/24465-a-300-billion-example-of-how-corporations-control-our-government.