At the Fringe: Stories from Davos (2) – Are the Swiss Depressed?

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André is on his way to the local grocery store, the Coop, in Davos. He is wearing a big grey woolen cap and a massive grey jacket and seems slightly out of place amongst the elderly people standing in line with their recycling. He, like so many, works in the tourism sector that drives and basically makes up the Davos economy with a share of 98 % of all revenue.

André has been living in this Swiss mountain resort for the last seven years, but he doesn’t yet feel quite at home. When asked about the challenges of living in Davos he shrinks a bit deeper into the big jacket and just says: “The people are … cold.” People in the south are just “happier” according to him and he should know – he married a Brazilian woman and smiles when he mentions that. “I hate snow”, he adds, almost like an afterthought.  But there is work and safety here, so he is not complaining

Are the Swiss depressed? Not all of them.

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Are the Swiss depressed? Not all of them.

This is a common story – most people assume that people in warmer regions are happier. Especially people in rainy regions tend to think this. A person in sunny California will naturally be happier than someone in northern Britain, say on Orkney, right?

However, recent studies analyzing the relationship between climate and happiness show no conclusive relationship. The happiest regions in the UK are indeed the most northerly – Shetland and Orkney, according to a “well-being survey” in 2012.

A study published in 2008 by Jaap Denissen from the Humboldt University in Berlin found that “the idea that pleasant weather increases people’s positive mood in general is not supported by the findings of this study”. Other factors, such as having secure income, food and shelter, and a good social network are at least as significant in determining our happiness.

Still, many people do feel depressed in cold and dark regions. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is affecting around for example 7% of the British population, especially during winter months. However, warm South Korea has a far higher suicide rate than colder Scandinavia. Indeed, a recent study by Gaël Brulé and Ruut Veenhoven has found that Latin Europeans are unhappier, overall.

Moreover, much has been made of relationship between the connection between happiness, wealth and inequality. Bhutan, the world’s youngest democracy, releases a happiness index, and northern countries regularly head the table. In 2013 the world’s happiness table was headed by Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden (in this order).

So, maybe northern people just express their happiness in ways that seem colder to Southerners? The official Swiss website introducing “Swiss People and Mentality” to foreigners is very helpful in this regard. The Swiss introduce themselves with the slogan “small is beautiful” and talk about their Müsli, perfectionism and punctuality. All this they summarize with the image of a hedgehog. “Confronted with danger, a hedgehog will show its claws.” So this might be the right metaphor – the Swiss are most like a content hedgehog.

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