From the outside looking in, Switzerland can seem like a perfect country. After all, it’s the land of fondue, delicious chocolate, and getting tipsy on mountaintops. What’s not to like?
Even the research community supports Switzerland’s idyllic image. The country has consistently been either the first or the second happiest country in the World Happiness Report, which incorporates factors like GDP per capita, life expectancy, and perception of corruption.
In other words, the Swiss’ reputation as a joyous country isn’t a fluke; they’re genuinely doing something right. Why are Swiss people so happy? What are they doing right? And does the happiness come at a cost?
Community at the Core
There’s a stereotype that the Swiss are all about punctuality– and I can confirm that it’s true. Once I left the airport in Zurich, I had braced myself for dealing with bad public transportation. (I’m used to the nightmare that is the New York subway system.) But to my surprise, every train arrived exactly on time. Between three transfers, I never had to wait more than five minutes for a train.
At first, this might just seem like the Swiss have great public transit. And while that’s true, their transportation reveals their deeper respect of community.
After my trip, I talked to Jeff Wilson, the host of Real Rail Adventures on Public TV, about the significance of the Swiss public transit system. “The Swiss regularly vote for public works that don’t pay for themselves…like their extremely extensive public transportation system,” Wilson said. “The Swiss see public transportation as a right, so they’ve merged their postal system with a bus system that ensures no one in the country has to walk more than 10 minutes to get to public transportation.”
This attitude expands into their generous welfare and healthcare programs, both of which are amongst some of the best in the world. According to Forbes’ Avik Roy, the Swiss government spent 2.7 percent of its GDP on healthcare. For comparison, the U.S. spent 7.4 percent of its GDP in 2008. Despite this disparity, the Swiss have universal coverage for all citizens, comparably low wait times for appointments, and access to the latest technology. Their welfare system, meanwhile, provides for basic living costs, housing, and health insurance.
The Swiss emphasis on community doesn’t just come from their welfare system; it also stems from their mandatory military service. Every male citizen between the ages of 18 to 34 must participate in military training for 18 to 21 weeks. There is also an option to perform civil service work, which includes nature conservation, humanitarian aid, and assistance in natural disasters.
An employee at a hotel in Gstaad told me about his time in the medical unit of the Swiss military. While there, he learned how to use costume makeup to create fake wounds that others would pretend to heal. He acknowledged how silly the anecdote sounds, and that his time in the service can sound like adult summer camp. But he insisted that the experience made him feel closer to his country and community– and he wouldn’t trade that for anything.
“Part of that (love of country) comes from the mandatory public service all Swiss must engage in while they’re young,” Wilson said. “When you serve others while you’re young, becoming a part of something larger than yourself, you learn a kind of humility that stays with you your whole life.”
Sweaty and Smiling
While the world is dealing with an obesity epidemic, the Swiss are a generally trim people. In fact, Swiss women have the lowest BMIs in Europe. From what I’ve observed, that’s generally because a healthy diet and physical fitness are emphasized to the Swiss children from day one. As one of my tour guides told me, “Swiss children are on skis right after they learn to walk. It’s what we do here.”
Physical activity is emphasized from a young age. For example, the schools in Gstaad have mandatory sports, which means that the streets are constantly filled with adorable kids in skiing gear. This mentality transfers into adulthood. Chantal Panozzo observes this in a piece she wrote about her experience living in Switzerland: “If it’s summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you.”
A Fear of Diversity
Despite all of this happiness, Switzerland undoubtedly has its social issues, such as the lack of diversity. Because of a law called Durchsetzungsinitiativ, any foreigner who is convicted of two minor offenses within ten years can be automatically deported. These can be as small as traffic violations. (Edited to add: While this proposal was refused by 58.9% of voters, it highlights the fear that some Swiss have of outsiders.)
This policy highlights the intolerance that some Swiss have for anyone who is not “traditionally Swiss.” A lot of the time, this means that they’re a person of color. The below poster, which is in favor of keeping Durchsetzungsinitiativ, perfectly illustrates the fear that some Swiss have of those who are different.
Of the two million foreigners in Switzerland, 1.6 million are of European origin. “Probably the biggest challenge facing migrants is integrating into Swiss living,” Zurich resident and expat, Cynthia Luna, told me. “The Swiss are a culturally reserved and risk-averse people. Newcomers are unaware of the numerous unspoken codes of conduct and will not know if they made a social faux pas.”
Cynthia’s point resonated with me. Throughout my entire time in Switzerland, I didn’t notice anyone who I would classify as distinctly “different.” The one person who remotely stood out from the crowd was a really drunk woman singing karaoke at a hotel bar. (And even then, she was a white lady who looked immaculate in an expensive outfit, complete with diamonds.) Because of the lack of foreigners in the country, there’s a very noticeable lack of diversity. Throughout my five days in the country, I only noticed one person of color. This makes sense — in 2002, only 0.6% of the country’s population was black. The CIA’s World Fact Book states that the country’s ethnicities are divided into German, French, Italian, Romansch, and “other.”
It’s tempting to correlate Switzerland’s lack of diversity with its levels of happiness. And it’s likely true, to an extent, that people feel more comfortable around people who look like them — though the global consequences of that are frightening.
Yet there’s another way to think about the issue. Behavioral researcher Jared Boyles believes the Swiss must strive “to change [their] fundamental ideas of what it means to be homogeneous in the first place.” In other words, are there ways people can find areas of common ground, even if they don’t look alike?
While Switzerland has a poor track record with diversity, it still offers important lessons in being civically minded and physically active. Meanwhile, the “happiest country in the world” might learn how to extend their joy to people who might not, at the outset, fit the traditional notion of what it means to be Swiss.
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