January 30


By Joshna Joseph, Sara Kadam, Bilal Siddiqui, Tamara Turchetta

What is the secret to happiness? Everyone has heard this tired and tried cliche time and time again, but that question wouldn’t be so common if we had an answer. Happiness is subjective, so there isn’t exactly a formula we can use to help make people happier. We do however, have statistics detailing which countries, if any, tend to foster a happier populace. Using parameters such as health, communication, governance, and social progress, Scandinavian countries like Finland, have uniquely set themselves apart from the rest of the world when it comes to the elusive metric of citizen satisfaction. The U.N’s world happiness report has seen Finland consistently rank at or near the top almost every year, with their neighbours Sweden and Norway often not far behind (Ollila, J. 2019). What exactly do Finland and their friends do to satisfy their citizens’ needs? Starting from the top, nordic countries have used education as a means to enrich the factors listed above. Studying the nordic education system allows us to key in on specifics that  potentially contribute to this capacity for greater social progress, economic stability, general citizen contentment. In general, Scandinavian countries treat education slightly different from the rest of the world. Whereas countries like the USA and the UK are focussed on constant evaluation to uncover distinctively talented individuals, countries like Finland and Sweden are more focussed on ensuring all (or as many) students as possible are able to discover their own independence and autonomy, outside of the classroom. So, what is it about the Finnish (and other nordic) education systems that help build and develop a happier and stable population, and  does it come in a list other countries can copy and paste?

We discussed the Scandinavian education system’s traits with a high school student, Klara Wagenius, from Sweden to gain some personal insight into their educational tenets and practices. Klara confirmed what is commonly believed: that students are given very little homework, experience shorter school hours and are granted longer breaks.  Moreover, the system does not rely mainly on academic results to stream students into different pathways. In fact, streaming is based on interest without much reliance on national test scores. Other countries such as Singapore place a heavy emphasis on grades, streaming students during every step of their pre-tertiary education. The Nordic system’s flexibility is enviable and serves to sharply contrast the immovable set-in-stone results of systems that use streaming like Singapore where moving to a path or line that is more aligned with a student’s interests can become challenging to the point of nearly impossible. 

We also learned that beyond the fairly well-known fact that education in Sweden is completely free for its citizens, Swedish high school students are actually paid a grant of $120 to attend school! (Raj, R. 2016). Another  striking “observation” from our chat with Klara was that Swedish schools have well defined periods of break, where students aren’t expected to do school work; this stands in stark contrast to expectations of American students, who often receive copious summer reading lists, pressure to do something or the other with regards to extracurriculars, and cold hard  disapproval and guilt for not doing anything “productive” during free time.

 It is also interesting to note that “free time” after school and over holidays for many students, in cases where their parents are working,  still means staying at the school . Not only is before and after school care entirely free, but it is not used as an extension of the school day — there is no school work done at all.  Because of this shift in purpose, it is apparently not regarded by students as an extension of the school day. According to Klara, who regularly participated both before and after school hours and over holidays, it’s just an opportunity to play with your friends for the day…. To the other students in our discussion (from India, Canada, the US, and Singapore), the idea of students willingly and gladly spending all outside of school hours and holidays at the same place with the same people as they had attended for school, and being able to distinguish (and happily label!) it as “free-time”,  was certainly remarkably foreign (to say the least).

On a separate, though possibly related, note involving concepts with the prefix “free-”, it was also observed that the concept of freedom is more clearly framed, and is seen as the liberty to utilize education and access healthcare in order for people to be able contribute their best individually to the collective progress of the community and the country as  a whole. This differs from the notion of freedom in other parts of the world  which is more familiarly correlated with the freedom “from the government” or the  freedom “to do as you please” (short of criminal acts)  with little regard to who or what it serves or hinders .

 Another, striking difference is the fact that countries across the world, including but not limited to the US, often have an unwritten hierarchy of universities that are deemed to be “elite” and promising with regards to job opportunities after graduation. Such assignation pressurizes students into thinking that getting into these so-designated institutions will be critical for their professional careers, and that not meeting the rigorous demands of these institutions, and by natural extension, those that define “success” in society, will make them redundant to future opportunities.  This kind of  institutional hierarchy does not exist in Sweden. All universities are held on the same pedestal. This might seem easy to dismiss as a simply a fortuitous natural outgrowth of a country that is smaller or more ethnically and ideologically similar, but this seemingly inconsequential ability to imbue institutions and career paths with merit more evenhandedly, seems to produce a meaningful consequence.

The fact that educational autonomy is a likely driving force of happiness on some scale is probably a surprise to no one. The question that is often raised before assigning too much praise, though is  “what economic ‘sacrifices and hardships’ would populations have to ‘endure’ from an education system that fuels an economy driven by ‘collective prosperity’ and could the companies produced within it compete in an open, and more aggressively competitive global market?” When people think of socialist economies like Sweden’s, they often assume the high taxation and reduced privatization suffocates entrepreneurism. Yet, evidence from successful companies like Ikea and Spotify, both start-ups created in Sweden, shows that systems like these can facilitate the growth for private companies to function, compete, and succeed in more open market economies. The USA has seen its share of annual new start ups plummet in recent years, while Sweden continues to see record highs (Samuels, A. 2017). America might still be the free capitalists dream, but clear evidence shows that other systems can produce competitive companies, innovative products, and supercharged profits –ones that thrive not just “not-at-the-expense” of collective prosperity, but rather, because of it. 

Many people think of business as a zero-sum game and that while cooperation is useful, too much of it means you’re just allowing your competitors to control your profits. Maximizing autonomy and control in a capitalist system is not simply prized, but is the minimal requirement for business survival. Students in Nordic education systems, however, live in a structure that promotes and values both autonomy and cooperation; in addition,  having grown up with little concern around losing access to education or healthcare, students and future business leaders  are less adverse to more cooperative practices. Certainly this took time. The education system and economic policies in Nordic countries like Sweden were not til fairly recently where they are now.  Initiatives like this in one the 1990s, where “the government gave a tax break to companies that gave their employees home computers, on the condition that these computers were available to everyone, whether they managed the company or cleaned the toilets”….so essentially., “Every inhabitant of Sweden under 40 basically grew up with a PC in their home.” (Samuels, A. 2017).…were part of the large reforms of the time that started the levelling of the economic playing field and opened the country to the growth and development we now cite.

In the end, it’s policies that truly level the playing field — seeing genuine value in cooperation and the real benefit to everyone in granting equal access to resources–  that may hold the key to collective economic prosperity and general satisfaction (so possibly happiness?). Nordic countries continue to push the point that rather than being first, it’s more productive to work together to come up with the right solution and it looks to be a staple ingredient to many Swedish companies achieving worldwide global success…
Something to take a  hard look at… before thinking that distributing computers to your whole population will solve all your problems.

Ollila, J. (April 7, 2019). Op-Ed: Why Finland comes out on top on happiness and more. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-ollila-finland-happiness-20190407-story.html

Samuels, A. (September 28, 2017). Why Does Sweden Have So Many Start-Ups? The Atlantic.  https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/09/sweden-startups/541413/

Raj, R. (July 8, 2016). Sweden pays students to attend secondary school. inshorts. https://inshorts.com/en/news/sweden-pays-students-to-attend-secondary-school-1467965

 Johnston, O., & Wildy, H. (2016). The effects of streaming in the secondary school on learning outcomes for Australian students – A review of the international literature. Australian Journal of Education, 60(1), 42–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944115626522

Mijs, Jonathan. (December 1, 2014). The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education Social Justice Research. SSRN. 29(1):: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2670274