Scandinavia. The Nordics. Home to pine trees, fjords, and the most contented people in the world.

From hygge to Janteloven, the people seem to instinctively know how to strike the perfect balance. Maybe that’s why Copenhagen and Stockholm routinely rank as some of the best places to live.

But all is not well in the Nordics.

The news that the far-right political party Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats) picked up 18% of the vote in the 9 September general election shook the stereotype that Sweden is an easy-going centrist society.

A new report, In the Shadow of Happiness, by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the official body for inter-parliamentary collaboration among the Nordic countries, suggests there are problems across the region.

The report examines levels of unhappiness in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) plus the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland. Depression, social isolation, poor health, and income inequalities all feature heavily in the findings. The study reveals that 12% of the region’s people perceive themselves as unhappy, presenting a more bleak outlook than the World Happiness Report which earlier this year found Finland to be the world’s happiest country. Hot on Finland’s heels were Norway, Denmark, and then Iceland. Sweden was ranked ninth.

Image: Nordic Council of Masters - Shadow of Happiness Report

The Nordic Council of Ministers’ report takes as its starting point the high levels of happiness usually recorded across the region, noting: “It is the norm for people to report 7, 8 or 9 when evaluating life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10.”

Focusing on those who give an answer lower than 7, In the Shadow of Happiness classes those who score between 5 or 6 as struggling, and those who score between 0 and 4 as suffering – 12.3% of the total population of the Nordic region are struggling or suffering, the report concludes.

Splitting the general population leads to some telling differences. In the 18-23 age bracket, 13.5% are struggling or suffering. That’s worse than for any other age group, apart from the over-80s. The differences between men and women are perhaps the most stark, however.

Social isolation is one of the main contributory factors to unhappiness in men, the report finds. This is of particular concern in older age groups.

In Sweden, 3.1% of young men are classed as suffering, but for young women the proportion is more than twice that – 6.5%. In total, 19.5% of young Swedish women are either struggling or suffering.

The report found similar patterns in Norway and Finland, and in Iceland, more than three times as many young women are suffering, compared to young men. Only Denmark bucks that gender trend.

It lists the five factors influencing levels of unhappiness, in order of importance, as:

- Poor general health

- Poor mental health

- Inequality of income

- Unemployment

- Limited social contact

For the Nordics, where there has been a sustained emphasis on building cohesive, caring, liberal democracies, the report may make for difficult reading. A society with burgeoning unhappiness levels will reveal itself in a range of challenging ways. Whether in election results, where a polarized electorate returns a hung parliament, in civil disorder, or – more prosaically – with increased rates of sick leave damaging overall economic productivity.

Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, posed a number of questions in response to the report's findings: “What can we as a society do for people who, for one reason or another, experience an impaired quality of life? What should be the role of the public sector? What should be the role of civil society? And how can the resources of society be utilized as well as possible? We ought to discuss these questions. We are not well served by the fact that so many people remain in the shadow of happiness.”