What the Nordic countries can teach us

By Judy Paul

Judy is interested in promoting ideas that shift our society in a more just, sustainable direction. Newly retired, she spent her career facilitating positive change in the areas of adult and family literacy, mental health, community development, and outdoor recreation. As a volunteer, she worked on climate justice issues, peace education with youth, and blogging about local food. Judy lives in Haliburton where she loves to ski, paddle, read and watch the birds.

Reykjavik, Iceland. Nordic nations boast a high quality of life. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Walking the ancient Camino de Santiago, a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe, I met a fellow pilgrim named Uho, a Finnish man. It was late afternoon in the sunny courtyard of our hostel and I watched Uho plunge his feet into a bucket of cold water to revive his tired muscles.

Wanting to strike up a conversation, and having read about the high level of equality in Finland, I asked Uho if life was good there. He replied that it was, but many Finns only appreciated their situation only when they returned home after travelling outside of Finland.

How is it that a group of small northern European countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland – can provide such a high quality of life while at the same time thriving economically? The newly elected Conservative provincial government here in Ontario would have us believe that we cannot have both, that in order to stimulate the economy we need to cut programs that serve a social, cultural or environmental purpose. I don’t buy it. Policy decisions are determined by values and reflect priorities.

We have to ask ourselves, who are we looking to for policy direction? Is it the United States and the dead American dream? Or do we look to the Nordic Countries? Ed Miliband, the leader of the British Labour Party commented at a conference on social mobility, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

In many happiness studies the Nordic countries share the top scores. ‘Happiness’ however may not be the most accurate term. In Why the Finns don’t want to be happy, a high quality of life includes the usual indicators of life expectancy and GDP per capita. However, Finns also list the ability to look after each other, freedom to make life decisions knowing that there is a strong level of support, along with high levels of trust and generosity.

Because the Nordic countries have greater equality, they are better able to care for those who may be disadvantaged. It turns out that immigrants there feel the same high levels of happiness, i.e., trust in strangers, generosity, etc. University of British Columbia Professor John Helliwell, co-editor of the World Happiness Report, states: “Looking at immigrants’ happiness shatters the idea that Nordic countries are closed, homogeneous societies. If happiness is to do with something in the Finnish psyche, it’s equally available to someone from Bangladesh. So it’s got to be more about the way the country is run.”

I suspected as much. We need a serious consideration of Nordic policies despite the differences between us and Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland.

In The Nordic Theory of Everything, the author argues that Finland is not a ‘nanny’ state, where the government coddles its citizens. Lars Tragardh, a Swedish scholar and historian who lived in the United States has spent decades thinking and writing about the ‘American dream’ and how it compares to the Nordic dream. Along with a collaborator, Tragardh came up with “the Swedish theory of love” to explain it.

Partenan stated that the same values exist in Finland so she calls it “the Nordic theory of love.” This overarching philosophy has dictated how they structure their societies. Nordic nations choose policies that maximize independence, freedom and opportunity for every member of society.

But what about those rumours of really high taxes? Partanen reveals that her municipal and national taxes amounted to 30.6 per cent of her taxable income. In return, she received or was eligible for, comprehensive health insurance, a full year of partially paid disability leave, up to three years of parental leave, affordable high-quality day care, one of the world’s best education systems, free post secondary education, elder care, and social security programs when needed.

Rather than an austere life, Partenan enjoyed a comfortable middle class existence with enough disposable income after taxes to eat out, travel, enjoy herself and set aside savings every year.

Not everything is perfect in the Nordic countries as many skeptics like to point out. They have, however, created high levels of well-being and a prosperity that will enable them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There is a lot we could learn from their successes.

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