Last update on January 07, 2020
Written by Kathy

According to the Geography of Bliss, the Swiss are very happy. But blogger Kathy of TwoFools in Zürich questions how long that will last.

This may come as a surprise to North Americans, who judge happiness by the number of smiling faces, but according to Eric Weiner in the Geography of Bliss, the dour-looking Swiss are indeed very happy.

Weiner points to three key factors that underpin Swiss happiness: love of nature, trust in others and control of envy.

The Swiss are clearly avid outdoors enthusiasts, and Weiner points out that this gives them lots of chances to experience what E. O. Wilson calls biophilia, that feeling of happiness and peace engendered by being out in the natural world.

According to Weiner, the Swiss also trust their fellows and are the happier for it. The level of trust here usually comes as a bit of a shock to North Americans. I was amazed and delighted the first time I ordered something online here and was able to pay for it after it arrived. I was less delighted but certainly amazed when my landlord suggested leaving a key with my neighbor, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. (It’s not in big-city US.)

If the Swiss know and trust their neighbors, Weiner also suggests they avoid giving them cause for envy. Bragging about possessions or talking about money are considered unpleasant and ill-mannered.

But there is more to the story of Swiss happiness. Weiner’s key factors (trust, envy, nature) are tied not only to happiness but also to some serious potential unhappiness.

Heimatort

Weiner emphasizes the importance of place for the Swiss. In fact, I think that trusting others, controlling envy, and a love of nature grow out of a Swiss sense of place, a sense of belonging to a specific place and community, and this is actually what secures happiness in Switzerland.

Heimatort, one’s ancestral community, has a powerful cultural salience that carries over to the structural significance of one’s community of residence or Gemeinde.  These place-identities are reinforced as in-group identities in German-speaking Switzerland by the use of dialect, with each region or even community speaking its own variant.

Insiders and Outsiders

But if some are inside the small community, that means others are outside, lots of others. Not exactly a recipe for national cohesion or even, perhaps, happiness. The modern Swiss political genius, according to Jonathan Steinberg, has been to encapsulate difference and represent it in the political process, allowing different groups to flourish while living side-by-side.

There’s one group, however, that can’t be represented in the political process, can’t be easily encapsulated and merged into the social fabric: immigrants. They have no Heimatort here, no community of identity with their Swiss neighbors. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t predictable. (Who knows how people behave where they come from?) Maybe that’s why they seem somehow less trustworthy.

It is actually fairly common here to explain someone not hewing to the norm, making noise late at night for example, by saying that they are foreign. Absurdly enough, I’ve said it myself when confronted with a beer bottle left at my gate or noisy neighbors.

It’s not that all Swiss are xenophobic (they aren’t) or that individual immigrants never successfully integrate into their communities (they do), it’s just that foreigners as a group just don’t quite fit comfortably in Swiss society.

They don’t have a place.

Changing Circumstances

Circumstances matter, and a vague uneasiness about immigrants can sharpen into fear and resentment. It seems we may be in the midst of just these kind of circumstances.

According to a survey commissioned by Beobachter, the Swiss middle class is in trouble, especially the lower middle class. The cost of living, particularly rents and health insurance premiums, have rapidly outpaced salaries. 38% of middle-class families (45% of lower middle-class families) have nothing left over for savings at the end of the month and are living from paycheck to paycheck. More women have taken on part-time work and families are willing to consider limiting family size in order to maintain their standard of living. As the article suggests, it’s the classic middle-class, background anxiety about losing one’s class status.

At the same time, the percentage of foreign residents is large and growing (over 22% of the Swiss population in 2010). In addition, the majority make-up of the immigrant population has shifted from low-skill refugees from outside of the EU who have historically taken low-wage jobs to highly skilled, highly educated EU citizens.

Beobachter suggests that a “fear of the free movement of persons” (of EU immigrants) has seized the middle class, and this is “politically explosive.”  The SVP has quite explicitly capitalized on this fear, perhaps also helping to inflame it in the process, in it’s campaign against German immigration.*

Anxiety about immigration is highest amongst those feeling the worst of the economic crunch, the lower middle class, although only 10% of the middle class as whole say they are concerned about their financial circumstances worsening in the next five years.

Sociologist Ueli Mäder is less optimistic than the respondents and thinks that a trend toward increasing inequality is a real possibility. Certainly any rapid contraction of the middle class would mean a large group that was quite conscious of its loss, a certain recipe for social unrest.

Can Happiness Survive Change?

What does it mean for a society that is so strongly organized around place to make room for newcomers?  How is social trust maintained if more and more people feel surrounded by (threatening) foreigners? How is envy contained if old ways of muting status (controlling envy) fall away in the midst of financial turmoil? Can Swiss happiness survive change?

Check out the World Database of Happiness results. What do you think? Are the Swiss happy? Are you happy? Does being Swiss (or not) have anything to do with it?

*The Swiss are not alone in dealing with the challenges of immigration in tough times. Most of Europe and the US are facing the same issues. I have to say that so far the Swiss are managing immigration fears no worse than and probably much better than the US.  The US has the advantage of its size, as well as a pro-immigration ideology to call on (the melting pot), and still manages to pass some pretty awful laws.

Photo credit: ND Strupler (Swiss flag – top picture).