Finland: The happiest country in the world?

Photo: “Whereas surviving the dark winters may require some resilience in Finland, in summertime there is daylight even during the night.”

In a recent World Happiness Report published by the United Nations, Finland was nominated the happiest nation in the world. The Finnish people, Finns, received this title given by a UN-led committee with rolling eyes; claiming that the happiest citizens in the world live in a country where the sun barely exists during the long and cold winter sounded more like a joke.

What is this recognition based on, and what are actually the facts indicating that this conclusion has a reliable ground? The UN research is based on factors that measure life expectancy, social support received by people, as well as level of corruption and security, just to name a few. These topics were surveyed by asking simple questions from citizens of different countries. Along with Finland, all the Nordic countries made it to the top 10 list, accompanied by countries such as Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

What is noteworthy is that all these types of rankings always consist of factors that one is able to measure in a quantitative manner, and that is what the report is, in fact, about; levels of happiness in different countries are put in order based on scientific methods. There is no doubt that something essential is inevitably lost, when the pure and personal feeling of felicity is formulated so that it serves the idea of performances competing against each other. However, can we still consider that these rankings have at least some directional value when it comes to searching true happiness?

I have talked with several foreigners about Finland and what usually pop up in their mind, when asking about the country, are the words such as ’north’, ’coldness’ and ’dark winters’ – along with Santa Claus and reindeer, perhaps. Sometimes even the high rates of suicide are mentioned, and there is a grain of truth to that notice, too. Despite the shining placing at the top of the happiness ranking, Finland still has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, even if those rates have showed a steady decline during recent years. The darkness during the winter months can get depressing, and there is even a separate word in Finnish to describe depression caused by the lack of sunlight, ’kaamosmasennus’. As a matter of fact, the public health authority in Finland recommends people to supplement their everyday diet with some extra D vitamin, as the natural access to it is most often inadequate due to lack of sun during the winter. Conversely the sun hardly sets in northern parts of Finland in summertime.

Despite these factors, it is most often not an exaggeration to say that Finns are proud of their country. The national personality trait in Finland is usually characterized by self-deprecation and jokes about the darkness and the language no one understands, for example, but behind that shell you can find a person that is more than happy to both present his or her country, as well as learn more about other cultures, too. National pride usually stems from things such as the word ’sisu’, explaining Finnish national character that includes qualities such as grit, honesty, bravery and resilience. A Finn wouldn’t probably mind either telling you, with a modest smile on his or her face, that pronouns in Finnish grammar are gender neutral, or that Finnish women were the first in Europe to win the right to vote.

Along with the national character it is the network of working political institutions that plays a major role in Finnish society. What could be a better source of reassurance than being able to trust that the community you live in is safe, and that you will not be hung out to dry in case you need help? Yes, it is a known fact that Nordic citizens pay a relatively high amount of taxes to the state, but as a return they can be sure that this money is used to serve the common good. It is not only about income distribution but rather an investment to a society where most people can feel involved. In the long run, the resulting decline of social exclusion leads to a healthy and trustworthy society where the nominal costs have been paid back multiple times. It is not surprising that Finns are one of the happiest taxpayers in the world; instead of being altruistic they can expect to get something in return.

It can of course be argued if the idea of welfare state is a Nordic way to rationalize socialism, or rather a successful business model adapted to the government level. In either case, I believe that these political institutions, supported by a certain mix of modesty and national pride together, form a recipe that helps Finland perform well from the international point of view. Surprisingly enough, it may even outweigh the inconvenience of getting your dose of vitamin in pills instead of lying on the beach…

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