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The United Nations World Happiness Report ranks the world’s nations in terms of the happiness of their citizens. In 2020, Finland placed first for the third year in a row. Which leads to the question: why are the Finnish people so happy?
The world happiness ranking is determined by polling citizens of each country, asking them to rank their personal happiness levels on a scale of 0 through 10. The report also analyzes individuals’ self-reported happiness in terms of each country’s levels of GDP, life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom, and corruption.
Experts in psychology and sociology, as well as Finnish people themselves, have suggested several reasons why Finland (as well as other Scandinavian nations with similar cultures) seem to have such happy citizens.
Trusted Governmental Institutions
Happy nations in general have stable governments. This notion makes sense, with war-torn nations like Syria and Yemen coming in at the bottom of the happiness ranking. It’s hard to feel personal happiness when death and destruction surround you.
But beyond mere stability, the happiest countries have a strong trust in their government’s honesty and high confidence that the people in charge are genuinely looking out for the best interests of their citizens. There are low rates of corruption, and when corruption is discovered, it’s attacked as a public scandal with legal consequences.
Strong Social Support Systems
Finland and other Scandinavian nations have some of the best social support systems on the planet. Universal health care, excellent and well-funded education, generous leave policies for workers, including paid maternity and paternity leave and subsidized child care, and a strong social safety net for the poorest in society are hallmarks of policy in these nations.
These support systems take a lot of common worries off the table for citizens. They know that they’ll have shelter and food no matter what, that their children will be well educated, and that even a serious illness will not spell economic disaster for their family. The Finnish people themselves often attribute their own happiness to knowing that these basic supports are out there when they are needed.
Civic Engagement and Volunteerism
Finland and other Scandinavian nations have high rates of volunteerism among their citizens. People get out and work together on community improvement projects and fundraising for less fortunate people. Many psychological studies suggest doing work that is meaningful and helpful to others makes individuals more satisfied with their lives overall.
With strict limits on working hours and generous paid leave policies (all Finns have 5 weeks of annual leave plus 11 paid public holidays annually, while individual companies often provide even more vacation time to long-term employees), Finnish people have more time to spend on activities that bring them satisfaction, including volunteer work and spending time with family and friends. Finland is one of the highest ranked countries in the world in terms of work-life balance, an important factor in overall happiness.
A Culture of Simple Pleasures
Finnish culture emphasizes relatively simple pleasures. Finland is covered with great forests, and Finns spend a great deal of time outdoors, even in their lengthy and freezing winters. In warmer weather, most Finns enjoy gardening, and berry picking season finds everyone from children to the elderly filling baskets with fruit and baking pies and pastries with the harvest.
As The Economist has suggested, “The secret to Finland’s happiness might just be how boring it is. A Finnish saying sums it up well: ‘Happiness is having your own red summer cottage and a potato field.’”
One of Finland’s major cultural touchstones is the sauna, enjoyed by Finns year round. In addition to being an enjoyable communal activity, the heat and sweat of a sauna session provides relaxation and physical detoxification. When asked about their sauna habits, 99% of Finnish people reported going to a sauna once a week or more.
An Emphasis on Steady Satisfaction
High expectations of happiness often lead to unhappiness. Finland’s overall wealth and GDP growth is much lower than that of the United States, but the U.S. ranks far below in its happiness rating. Many people have a lot more money in the United States — but there is also a huge disparity between the people at the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Moreover, the hours of work that are required to gain and retain that wealth detract from family and social connections, leaving even society’s apparent “winners” feeling isolated and dissatisfied.
Anu Partanen, a Finnish native who moved back to Finland after living in the United States for a decade, told the Huffington Post, “Most people would like a life where they can get healthcare if they get sick, where their children get a good education, where they can work and hopefully feel fulfilled in that work, while still being able to spend time with loved ones…It’s not that Finns are necessarily looking to become immensely rich. I think Finland just does a pretty good job of helping people achieve this lovely, ordinary life.”
What can the rest of us learn from Finland?
Articles about Finland’s high happiness rating often suggest that in order to be happier, people should consider moving to Finland. Even if possible, it’s unlikely that uprooting your life and moving to an unfamiliar country with brutal winters and one of the most difficult languages to learn would make most people happy.
Rather, examine the underlying factors that contribute to Finnish and general Scandinavian happiness, and see how they can be replicated elsewhere. Work for changes in government priorities and workplace culture that support people’s basic needs, including healthy work-life balance and a lack of fear that a school loan or health crisis will make life impossible.
On the personal level, consider adopting some of the Nordic habits of relaxation: spending time outdoors, being socially engaged with family, friends, and neighbors, and striving for simple ongoing satisfaction over intermittent extravagant moments. You may not be able to move to Finland, but you can bring some Finnish ways into your life here.