What Can the United States Learn from Finland?

Courtney Burry

Photo by Kristaps Grundsteins on Unsplash

Finland recently took home the title of "the happiest country on the planet." This frosty nation with a population that could fit inside the state of Minnesota, is often shrouded in the darkness between the months of November and February. In Lapland, temperatures can often dip well below freezing.

Clearly, Finland must be doing something right. Because winter in Finland is not what I picture when I think of my happy place.

But Finns are happy. In fact, this is the 4th year in a row that Finland has been handed this title.

According to United Nations World Happiness Report, Finland won the coveted status because it scored well across six key categories: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity, and corruption levels.

These six factors are apparently pretty good proxies for feeling good. But it’s not just the factors in and of themselves that are important. It’s how they are put into practice that seems to matter most. And as Americans, we should take heed. Because there are some good learnings to be had from what the Finns are doing right.

A Roadmap to Happiness

Spreading the wealth

It turns out that the adage that money can’t buy happiness is just not true. In fact, new research from Wharton has found that people’s well-being increases with the amount of money they make.

Finland is in a strong position economically, given it is home to global name brands like Nokia and Kone, and digital hits like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans. But it is not the richest nation by far, even amongst its Scandinavian peers.

What makes Finland stand out is not just its GDP, but how this GDP is distributed. Because despite its wealth, Finland has one of the lowest poverty rates in the world. In fact, it is roughly half of the US poverty rate.

Key takeaway: Wealth makes you happy, but spreading the wealth around can make you feel even better.

Taking care of everyone’s basic needs

Finland also has an incredibly robust welfare net in place. This ensures that rich and poor alike are granted a good education, healthcare, and access to housing.

Also, education at all levels is free in Finland, including university education for all EU and EEA students. Healthcare is also free and universally available. Workers are all allotted 25 paid vacation days a year. In the US there are no allotted or mandated paid vacation days.

Housing allowances are additionally granted to low-income permanent residents. And families typically only need to spend 4–10% of household income to raise a well-rounded child in Finland. Contrast this with the United States, where families routinely spend 31.79% of their income solely on childcare costs, and you get a sense of just how good the Finns have it.

Key takeaway: It’s often the basics that can make us feel better. Make sure you are taking care of your core needs.

Respecting everyone’s rights and freedoms

Finland has a strong history of protecting and respecting individual freedoms and rights. It was the first European nation to grant women the right to vote in 1906, a full 14 years before a similar provision was made for American women. It is also considered being one of the top 6 best countries for women based on a recent survey from US News and World Report.

Finland is additionally one of the most progressive European countries towards the LGBT community. Same-sex activity has actually been legal in the country since 1971. And today, over 80% of the public believes that LGBT people should enjoy the same rights as heterosexual people.

However, all is not rosy in Finland when it comes to transgender people. And transgender people can only get legal gender recognition if they are over 18, agree to be sterilized, and have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Key Takeaway: Happiness is directly tied to individual freedoms and rights — and the more inclusive we are, the better everyone feels.

Giving freely

Given the low level of poverty in the country, it should come as no surprise that the Finns are very generous with their time and their money. According to the Happiness Research Institute, almost half of the population donates regularly to charity and one-third of them also volunteer regularly.

But for Finns, it’s not just about giving. It’s about having the freedom and the choice to do so.

Research routinely shows that generous people are happier in life. But givers also are happier more often.

77% of high-generosity respondents reported feeling happy daily, compared to 62% of their low-generosity counterparts (for an average of 72%).
2019 Research from the Ascent

Generosity has also been linked to lowering blood pressure and improving one’s overall health. In fact, research has shown that spending time and money on others can be as effective as medication and exercise.

Key Takeaway: Giving not only makes other people feel good, but it also turns out it makes us feel a lot better too.

But Wait. Aren’t There Other Things to Consider?

Are the criteria above really all it takes to be happy?

No, they are not. There are many ways to measure and increase happiness, and here are just a few that the UN Study didn’t look at.

Getting out in nature

Nature was not considered as a factor contributing to happiness, but perhaps it should be. As 18th century poet and writer, Samuel Johnson, once said, “Deviation from nature is deviation from happiness.”

It turns out that Finland is immersed in nature. In fact, 77% of Finland is covered in trees, and I’ve already written about how tree bathing and hugging can make you happy. Finland makes immersing yourself in nature easy.

Key Takeaway: Nature is a great proxy for happiness. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Protect it.

Having a sense of purpose

In Japan, older people are regularly given jobs working in shops, stores, and office buildings. This not only allows the government and businesses to meet demand but also provides this aging population with a sense of purpose.

Research has repeatedly shown that having a sense of purpose has a positive effect on our well-being.

In Finland, having a sense of purpose is part of their cultural heritage. It is embodied in the word “sisu”, which can be translated as “stoic perseverance”. And as Finnish philosopher Frank Martela notes, this grit and determination only serve to increase the Finns’ satisfaction with life.

“A significant part of our happiness is determined by how we face adversaries. Sisu, as an attitude of commitment and refusal to give in, can help us in these situations. Instead of taking the challenges as failures or as evidence that one is not happy, one almost welcomes them as a chance to show what one is made of. Thus, I believe that the better one is in facing adversaries with an accepting and courageous attitude, the easier it is to experience well-being and happiness, even when life is not making it easy for one.”

Key takeaway: Having the right outlook and a sense of purpose can take us to our happy place.

What about love?

What about love? Isn’t this key to finding happiness? Well, it may be, but clearly not as important as we might think. Because when it comes to feeling love, Gallup found in a separate survey that Finland scored nowhere near the top 10 out of 136 counties. In fact, in Finland, 44% of people live alone and are quite happy doing so.

Key Takeaway: A little love in your life can make you happy, but it turns out it is not a necessity.

What Does All This Happiness Mean

Happiness clearly has a lot of health benefits. It can reduce stress, improve a person’s immune system, and help people to live longer.

Because the Finns are seemingly so happy, it’s no surprise that the people living there have a longer life expectancy than most countries out there, ranking 22nd in the world.

Because of feeling good, Finns also have a higher level of trust in their political systems, their police force, and the media. In fact, a staggering 86% of Fins trust their police force today. And according to Reuters, Finland ranks #1 in public trust in media across the globe.

Getting to that Happy Place

Finland clearly is a gorgeous outdoor wilderness that has done a lot right. It is a model for the rest of the world.

And if you’re like me, you probably want to move to Finland right now. Or at the very least, visit the country to see all those happy people firsthand.

But don’t worry if you can’t traipse across the world. Just take a page from the Finns and live it. Work to embody the very qualities that are making our Finnish friends feel so good.

Because after the year we have had, we all deserve a little more happiness in our lives.


United Nation’s World Happiness Report
OECD’s Better Life Index
Vox, Where People Really Love Their Countries and Where They Kind of Don’t
Forbes, What Makes Finland the Happiest Country in the World
The Atlantic, Countries That Feel the Most Love in the World
US News and World Report Best Countries for Women
CNN Traveler: The 10 Happiest Countries in the World
Forbes: The World’s Most Generous Countries in 2020
New Statesmen: Why Mental Health Is Surging Even in the World’s Happiest Countries
Forbes: The Best and Worst Countries to Raise a Family
2019 World Population Prospects

© Courtney Burry 2021

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I am a mom, a marketer and a writer. I use humor and satire in my writing and love to write about parenting, travel, business, the environment, feminism, music and politics. So, basically everything.

Los Gatos, CA

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