Nordic countries, such as Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and others, routinely rank at the top of the list in the United Nation’s (UN) World Happiness Report, and 2019 was no exception.
The six variables used for scoring by the UN in the World Happiness Report that support overall well-being are:
- Healthy life expectancy
- Social support
A 2018 survey, however, found a simmering discontent and a small, but noticeable amount of unhappiness amongst an estimated 12 percent of people living in the region of the world’s happiest countries.
Depression, social isolation, income inequality and poor health ranked high as the reasons for unhappiness.
Denmark’s Kulturvitaminer (Culture Vitamins) to the Rescue
Not content to stand by while segments of its population suffer in silence, countries like Denmark are turning to a technique called Kulturvitaminer or “culture vitamins.”
“We wanted to see if we could make people’s mental health better, reduce social isolation and help them get back into the labor market via culture,” Mikael Odder Neilsen, a Kulturvitamin program leader in Denmark, told The Guardian.
The Denmark program invites unemployed or on sick leave to attend around three cultural events a week for 10 weeks.
Cultural activities to improve mental health include some of the following:
- Attending rehearsals and performances of the symphony
- Being read to in a cozy, dimly lit room at the library
- Going to sing-alongs and music appreciation nights
- Learning local history and genealogy from a city’s local archives
- Museum and art gallery visits
- Confidence-building workshops where actors teach body language techniques
- Nature walks that contrast how slowly things grow compared to our hectic modern lives
How Do Cultural Activities Promote Mental Health?
Research has shown that listening to live music can greatly reduce stress levels in both children and adults.
Other activities like art workshops or reading help people develop emotional resilience and build and reinforce new neural pathways in the brain.
All of these types of cultural activities have been shown to boost a person’s overall mental health.
These types of culture-related interventions are known to reduce issues of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety and depression in regions affected by armed conflicts.
The findings have been outlined in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Addressing National Mental Health Issues
This type of approach to mental well-being is not necessarily new, but governments and societies around the world have vastly different beliefs in how important it is to address national mental health issues.
The Danes, for their part, have a long-held philosophy of Hygge [hew-guh], the practice of coziness, safety and being with family, as a way to combat the mental stress of the harsh winter months.
So, it’s not surprising that Denmark’s government would give Kulturvitamin programs a trial in four different cities around the country.
The Impact of Mental Health on Society
Poor mental health can have a heavy toll on any nation. Widespread problems related to mental health issues are a key factor in rates of physical illness, addiction, and homelessness in most countries around the world.
Its effects can also have an impact on educational institutions, in criminal justice, work productivity, the healthcare system and in many other areas important to a thriving country.
One of the key takeaways from “culture vitamins” is that this kind of prescription is ultimately cheaper and, in some cases, a more effective communal type of treatment for people suffering from depression, anxiety or other issues.
Waiting until people end up in jail, on the street, or in the emergency room to address poor mental health only treats the symptoms, not the cause.
While it’s ironic to see that some of the happiest countries in the world have a growing problem with depression or mental illness, it shows if it can happen to there, it can happen anywhere.
Nonetheless, it is promising to see they are actively working to address the situation head-on and find possible solutions as soon as the problems became apparent before they affect more people.
The United States, in contrast, is obviously much larger geographically, with a population more than ten times that of all five Nordic countries mentioned here combined. This represents a bigger set of challenges to find solutions for overcoming many of the same mental health issues.
Instead of trying to combat the problem in the U.S. on a national level, it might possibly be more effective to use similar techniques on a regional level in states across the country where they best fit within the cultural fabric of the area.
We should keep en eye on the progress they make in the happiest countries and adapt their successes to help improve mental health outcomes here.