A café in Helsinki, Finland. The top sign says “punainen tupa ja perunamaa”, a Finnish saying which means that one only needs “a red house and a potato field” to be happy. The bottom sign translates to “this is that potato field.” Source: WikiMedia Commons.
For the past two years, Finland has held the title of “happiest country in the world,” per the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. The report, released every March, ranks the happiness of countries by measuring variables such as income levels, strength of social support programs, and life expectancy. Overall, however, the report emphasizes factors that contribute to comfortable lifestyles; it does not necessarily measure the emotional status of countries’ citizens. Describing countries as “happy” based on these variables is misleading, especially in the case of Finland, a country which its own citizens consider to be melancholic in nature. Although the report may not measure the true “happiness” of countries, understanding why “happy” countries are ranked as they are allows us to examine life satisfaction and its influential factors.
Following the announcements in 2018 and 2019 that Finland was the happiest country in the world, news sources were quick to release articles admiring the lifestyles of Finns. Having been ranked as the happiest country in the world two times in a row, surely Finland had the secret to happiness! “Want to Be Happy? Try Moving to Finland” read one New York Times article. An article by Afar cited “Finland’s friendly locals, thriving culture and coffee scenes, and unfettered access to nature” as reasons for the happiness of Finns. Travel + Leisure’s “Why Finland Is Consistently the Happiest Country on Earth” discussed the ranking of Finland, accompanied with a cheerful video of sunny, Finnish seascapes and smiling blondes. Altogether, most of the articles exploring Finland’s status as the happiest country in the world displayed the country as a Nordic utopia.
However, by most standards, the culture of Finland is dark and melancholic. With a love for heavy metal (Finland has the most heavy metal bands per capita at 54 per every 100,000 residents) and sarcastic humor, Finns do not often come across as “happy” people. According to Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, Finns “are often pessimistic by nature and reserved about their emotions...this Finnish happiness we hear about is not about dancing or smiling or being outwardly happy.” In fact, smiling is perceived as strange: the tagline of one Finnish joke is that if a stranger smiles at you, they are “either crazy, drunk, or an American.” This dark nature of Finnish culture is complemented with its long and cold winters, during which one can expect only six hours of sunlight in the southernmost point of Finland. In the northernmost point, the “polar night” occurs, during which there are 51 days of never-ending darkness.
Considering the long, harsh winters and the gloomy sentiment of Finns, why is Finland so “happy”? To better understand this, I spoke with Janni Kerkkänen of Espoo, the second-largest city of Finland. When I asked Janni if Finland is truly a “happy” country, she explained that most people in Finland were surprised by the study. She cited Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola, who joked that when the study was released, everyone in Finland thought to themselves “so am I the only one who is not happy?” How could these results be correct for a country whose citizens are so pessimistic and self-deprecating?
As Janni explained to me, Finns aren’t necessarily “happy”; instead, they’re able to be satisfied and secure with their life situations. In Janni’s opinion, this is attributed to “the Finnish way of thinking,” which emphasizes the attitude of “this isn't the worst, so I'll be okay.” When asked how they are, it isn’t uncommon for Finns to respond that they’re “not bad” or that “things have been worse.” Other, more brutally honest answers are not uncommon, either. Overall, there is a greater acceptance of acknowledging when bad things are happening and understanding that things will not always work in your favor, which, according to Janni, is important for being happy.
Janni also cites the ability to disconnect from the workplace as another factor. When Finns are away from work, they are away from work. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, the Finnish capital of Helsinki was listed as the best city for work-life balance, a key factor being its minimum of 30 days of vacation leave. Compared to Americans, there is less guilt associated with taking time off and much less time spent working. Through this disconnect, there is more leisure time, notably for outdoor activities. According to a 2012 study, the average Helsinki resident spends 15 percent of their total time outdoors. The average American, meanwhile, only spends 5-7 percent of their time outdoors.
Despite the influence of these factors on overall happiness, is it really fair to base “happiness” on the strength of social support programs and levels of income? According to Janni, the answer is ‘yes’: “I feel much safer to live in a country where if I get sick or fired, I won't have to sell everything I own to survive.” As explained by Janni, those who need medical care are “more likely to seek support from social security than for donations on GoFundMe,” a phenomenon which has recently become prevalent in the U.S. as healthcare costs become increasingly unaffordable for many Americans. Unlike the U.S., Finland has a universal healthcare system and its funding comes from the taxes of its citizens. Although Janni states that the system may not be perfect, the tax system is progressive. Citing her father, Janni stated that at the end of the day, “he is indeed happy to give half of his paycheck away to ensure everyone else has a better opportunity to be happy in their lives—but satisfied will do!”
Although the United Nations’ World Happiness Report may not measure the true “happiness” of a country, it does indicate life satisfaction. In the case of Finland, “happy” may not be the correct term to describe its citizens, yet one can argue that Finns are at least satisfied with their lives. Ultimately, understanding how and why certain countries have higher life satisfaction may indeed lead to greater happiness. While there is no “true” way to be happy, perhaps we could learn from the Finns on how to be more satisfied with our lives. After all, things could always be worse.