It’s average year-round temperature is a balmy 7 degrees Centigrade (44.6 Fahrenheit) — with winter month averages of -3 degrees Centigrade — the polar night lasts up to three months with virtually no sunshine in northern regions throughout that period, and its citizens pay one of the highest personal income tax rates on Earth (nearly 40 percent).
But for all its cold and winter gloom (as well as overpriced goods and break-the-bank taxation), Norway has been named the world’s happiest country for 2017 in the United Nations annual World Happiness report.
(Denmark is the first runner-up on the 155-country list, followed by Iceland, Switzerland and Finland.)
The report, compiled annually since 2012 by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is based on a variety of factors, including extent of freedom, health, income, generosity, honesty and governance.
And while Norwegians have endured some serious economic setbacks in recent years due to the fall in international oil prices and major cuts in the country’s key offshore oil and gas industries, it seems the 5.3 million citizens of the Land of the Midnight Sun are still contented and genuinely gratified with life inside their 324,000-square-kilometer state.
So what makes the hyperborean Scandinavian tundra nation a frosty Disneyland where people don’t mind arctic temperatures and turning over two-fifths of their income to the government just for the right to live there?
To begin with, Norwegians enjoy one of the highest qualities of life, with an annual per capita income of $68,591 (after Qatar, Luxembourg, Singapore, Brunei and Kuwait).
Poverty is almost non-existent in Norway and there is free or almost free education (including university-level studies) and health care.
But economics alone do not account for Norway’s extraordinary happiness.
Norway also has one of the most open, equalitarian and inclusive democracies in the world, having ranked six years in a row as the most democratic nation according to British-based Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.
Under Norwegian law, all citizens are automatically registered to vote, and a full 78 percent of them did so in the last election (20 points higher than in the last U.S. election).
And then, there is that last, hard-to-pinpoint factor that makes Norwegians a nation of happy people, their core sense of unity and social consciousness.
At the end of the 19th century, Norway was one of the poorest in Europe.
But during its industrialization, it managed to construct a societal model with an exceptionally high level of equality and collectiveness built in.
This prototype helped to foster homogeneity within Norwegian society, which in turn allowed its citizenry to develop a sense of egalitarianism and harmony.
That culture of consensus has facilitated the proposal and follow-through of important projects in Norway, including the distribution of funds earned from the Scandinavian country’s oil reserves.
Consequently, every political party in Norway agreed to reserve the lion’s share of oil revenues in a government fund to be used in times of crisis to preserve the country’s pension program in the future.
The UN report that rated Norway Number One in happiness stated: “It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present (through its sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund), Norway has insulated itself from the boom-and-bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.”
The report added that Norway’s formula for handling its oil wealth “requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway … in the happiness ranking.”
So cold weather and stifling taxes be damned, the rest of the world has a lot to learn from Norway.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].