First, it's important to note that there are three claims being made here:
People in Nordic countries are happier than people in the United States.
People in Nordic countries are healthier than people in the United States.
People in Nordic countries have an overall higher standard of living than people in the United States.
Other answers have already addressed the first two of these to some extent. My answer will focus (for now, at least) on the last claim regarding standard of living.
The claim regarding overall standard of living is false. The U.S. exceeds most Nordic countries in many common measures of standard of living. The exception is Norway, which has a higher GDP/capita, but lower median household disposable income.
What is Standard of Living?
First, let's define the concept of standard of living.
Wikipedia defines Standard of Living as:
Standard of living refers to the level of wealth, comfort, material goods and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class in a certain geographic area.
Investopedia defines it as:
A standard of living is the level of wealth, comfort, material goods and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class or a certain geographic area.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines it as:
1. the necessities, comforts, and luxuries enjoyed or aspired to by an individual or group
Google defines it as:
the degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community.
Investopedia (and Wiki, which cites it) uses more precise economic jargon due to a target audience consisting primarily of investors. On the other hand, M-W and Google use more concise, layman-focused language. However, all of them say effectively the same thing: the standard of living of an individual or group is defined in terms of the level of goods and services available to them.
It's also important to note here what standard of living is not. As stated in the Wikipedia article on Quality of Life,
Quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income.
Standard of living is an economic concept, not an emotional one. Other life satisfaction factors that are taken into account when measuring Quality of Life are irrelevant to measuring standard of living.
Since income is usually the best predictor of the level of goods and services available to the vast majority of people, most measures of standard of living focus on measuring income available to the demographic in question.
According to the article How Do We Measure "Standard of Living?" posted by the Boston branch of the United States Federal Reserve System (a.k.a. "the Fed") and quoting a Canadian study on standard of living:
Standard of living is best measured through real GDP per capita as it encompasses all earnings accruing to residents of a country.
So, let's look at that first.
GDP per capita (PPP-adjusted)
According to Investopedia:
Gross domestic product (GDP) is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period.
However, cost of living can vary dramatically between different places, so an adjustment called Purchasing Power Parity is typically used when comparing GDP and income numbers between different places in order to normalize the numbers to what a given GDP or income can purchase. In order to account for these differences, all data used here will be PPP-adjusted where available.
Additionally, as described in the Wikipedia section on the relationship between GDP and standard of living, while GDP per capita is often used as a measure of standard of living due to its frequent, wide, and consistent availability, the relationship between GDP/capita and standard of living does have some important pitfalls to watch out for.
- It does not include non-market activity (e.g. volunteer or unpaid work) or non-monetary exchanges (i.e. bartering.) This can especially be a factor when making comparisons to less-developed economies where bartering often represents a larger fraction of the economy. However, this also means that productivity within a household (e.g. growing food instead of buying it or preparing your own meals instead of eating out) is not counted. As a result, countries with more production within households can be somewhat under-represented by GDP/capita.
- More importantly to our consideration here, it also does not account for how the gross product is distributed due to using an overall average. As a result, goods and services not distributed to households and income inequality between households can cause GDP/capita figures to over-represent what is actually available to a median household. Other measures which do not suffer from this weakness will be presented later.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF,) World Bank, and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) all have estimates for PPP-adjusted GDP/capita of most of the world's nations.
Norway, like other oil-rich countries such as Qatar (#1), Kuwait (#6), and UAE (#9), ranks above the U.S. All other Nordic countries rank well below the U.S. in all three lists.
Here are the rankings of the Nordic countries and the U.S. by all three agencies (Source: Wikipedia list):
- Norway #8 ($69,296)
- United States #13 ($57,294)
- Sweden #17 ($49,678)
- Iceland #20 ($48,070)
- Denmark #23 ($46,603)
- Finland #29 ($41,813)
- Norway #8 ($61,197)
- United States #10 ($56,116)
- Sweden #15 ($46,704)
- Denmark #16 ($46,624)
- Iceland #18 ($46,547)
- Finland #23 (40,979)
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
- Norway #8 ($68,400)
- United States #13 ($56,300)
- Sweden #18 ($48,000)
- Iceland #22 ($46,600)
- Denmark #25 ($45,800)
- Finland #28 ($41,200)
Household Income (PPP)
PPP-adjusted mean and median household income are also good, objective measures for standard of living.
Median household income and median household disposable income are especially useful in terms of the middle-class, as they are not skewed by high numbers on the upper end and they directly measure the standard of living of a median (50th percentile) household. This is in contrast to mean household income (an overall average of household income) or GDP/capita figures, which, as previously discussed, can be skewed by unequal income distribution.
Gallup Polling released a poll-based median household income list in 2013 based on data collected from 2006 to 2012. This poll listed Norway, Sweden, and Denmark ahead of the U.S. and Finland behind it. Iceland was not listed. However, being a poll, these figures are based on self-reporting of a poll sample rather than more direct and comprehensive measures, such as those performed by the governments.
The figure given for the U.S. in the Gallup survey varies dramatically from the figures measured directly and comprehensively by the U.S. Census. The figures given by the U.S. Census (PDF, Figure 1, p. 5) would rank #1 on Gallup's list. Figures given by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (PDF, Table 3, p. 33) are also in line with those given by the Census. However, it's possible (and probable) that the data for other countries on the list was also underreported, so valid conclusions can't really be made on proper ranking from this data. Unfortunately, I'm not able to find a reliable data source for the Nordic countries for this measure at present.
Median Household Disposable Income (PPP)
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measures disposable income available to households.
Since it measures good and services actually available to households, according to OECD:
Disposable income, as a concept, is closer to the idea of income as generally understood in economics, than is either national income or gross domestic product (GDP).
In order to maintain a neutral measure that treats equally systems which fund such things as healthcare and education in different manners (such as the government and non-profit charities,) OECD adjusts these data to include as income money spent by the government or "non-profit institutions serving households" as household income. Additionally, funds received from negative taxes (yes, this happens,) retirement fund payouts, social security programs, etc. are added in as income. A full description of their definition is given at the linked source.
Here is their list for 2014 data on PPP-adjusted disposable household income by country:
- United States #1 ($44,818)
- Norway #4 ($36,138)
- Sweden #10 ($30,492)
- Finland #11 ($30,456)
- Denmark #15 ($27,158)
- Iceland #17 ($25,882)
The rankings here are out of the 34 countries whose data are tracked by OECD for this measure. These consist of most European and North American nations, South Korea, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.
Most direct measures of standard of living place the U.S. above most or all Nordic nations. Some place Norway ahead of the U.S.
The claim that all Nordic nations have a higher overall standard of living than the U.S. is not supported by the data.