October 2, 2023

Finland is consistently ranked as the happiest country in the world. For Finns it is an eye-roller.

Two people sit on the ice on beach chairs.

People enjoy sunny weather on ice at the waterfront in Helsinki, Finland in 2021.Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

When I asked Frank Martela what makes him happy, he held out his phone and showed me a picture of a row of brightly colored children’s bicycles.

“I was taking my youngest child to kindergarten when I saw all these little bicycles – hundreds parked outside,” he said.

Some children, who are only 7 years old, travel alone to and from school and play alone.

Martela, a philosopher and researcher at Aalto University in Espoo, 20 kilometers from the Finnish capital Helsinki, cherishes the freedom his three children have there.

“Young children can move independently,” he said. “It’s something Finnish people might not think about if they’ve never been outside the country. They just take it for granted.”

Finland’s high level of social confidence could be one of the reasons that the country has been ranked as the world’s happiest for six years in a row. As the World Happiness Report, which compiles the ranking, notes, most Finns expect their wallets to be returned if they lose them.

Ride children's bicycles in Helsinki

Frank Martela showed me this photo of a row of children’s bicycles.Frank Martel

“In Helsinki it is completely normal to leave the baby outside, of course with a baby monitor and if possible by the window so that you can see the stroller while shopping or drinking coffee,” says Jennifer De Paola, a social psychologist and an expert in the field of Finnish happiness who moved to Finland at the age of 25.

(When I interviewed her in a café in Helsinki, De Paola’s seven-month-old baby slept next to her.)

The country is also known for its focus on work-life balance. That point is further underlined when I go to meet Heli Jimenez from Visit Finland in an office building in Helsinki shortly after 5 pm.

Jimenez told me that Finns are surprised that people in other countries don’t have “simple skills” like how to make a fire in nature.

So Finns have freed children, trust their neighbors, communicate with nature and leave work on time.

But ask them what they think of the happiness report and you’ll get a surprising answer.

“We are always surprised that we are still the first,” Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate, told me at yet another coffee shop in Helsinki. “Every year there’s a debate like ‘How is this possible?'”

In fact, the locals I spoke to were annoyed by the survey bored by the global perception of them as happy. Mentions of the report cause eye rolls and sighs.

“We don’t agree, it’s just not really for us,” an interior decorator told me, without naming me.

A better word to describe Finns would be “satisfied,” Jimenez said. “Because we are satisfied with our lives.”

Another question

Part of the problem lies in the survey itself, which is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and written by a team of independent experts.

The ranking data comes from the Gallup World Poll, a global survey that asks people to rate their lives on an imagined ladder that measures the best and worst life possible for them. Respondents rate their own lives on a scale of 0 to 10.

“The question they asked the participants is how satisfied you are with your life at the moment. So happiness is not discussed,” says De Paola.

“Happiness has more to do with emotions and the way those emotions are communicated,” she said, pointing to research in which she had studied word associations on social media. “So smiling, being cheerful, being joyful are more connected to happiness than the concept of life satisfaction.

“It’s just sexier to call it the World Happiness Report instead of calling it the Life Satisfaction Report.”

Finns do not see themselves as exceptionally lucky people. The country can even be quite pessimistic.

Finnish people are “not great at creating an atmosphere of optimism,” said Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate. But she is quick to add that pessimism and contentment can co-exist.

A busy street in Helsinki,

A busy street in Helsinki, Finland.peterv/Getty Images

Finnish people are often stereotyped as introverted and self-absorbed. Finns mind their own business, my Finnish grandmother says.

In the summer, those with the means can sometimes retreat to private summer cottages in the countryside for weeks at a time.

Yes, the climate is harsh. Winters in the country are cold and abnormally dark, especially in the north, where it is almost always dark in winter.

But it is also true that Finns are very content with what they have.

“They call us up and just ask if we like our lives. We just say there’s nothing wrong at the moment, maybe we’ll call back tomorrow,” one survey resident said.

A safety net

Maybe it’s not so much Finns Cheerfulbut that they don’t have the intense fears you might find in other places.

The Finnish government sponsors one of the strongest social security systems in the world. In 2021, the Scandinavian country spent 24% of its GDP on social protection – the highest of any other OECD country that year. Taxes are high in the country, but the residents get a lot in return.

Health care and education are free for all residents – all the way up to the Ph.D. level. The country also pays a portion of family childcare costs and workers are entitled to four weeks of summer vacation and one week of winter vacation in addition to the country’s 13 national holidays.

Finns are socialized from an early age and taught not to put up with poor working conditions, De Paola said: expected.”

People sit on chairs on a terrace.

People gather at a terrace in Helsinki in 2020.ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO/AFP via Getty Images

For example, if you lose your job in Finland, the state will help you until you find a new one. “You don’t have to care about money as much as you do anywhere in the US,” Martela said. “If I lose my job, it won’t affect my kids’ education or my wife’s healthcare or anything like that.”

Finns are also generally less dramatic in their aspirations when it comes to things like wealth and generally share an “achievable” idea of ​​what it means to be content with one’s life.

“I wouldn’t say they don’t dream big, but they dream achievable,” De Paola said.

‘We also have problems’

As fun as such assessments are to share and discuss, they naturally obscure the challenges faced by every country, even Finland.

“People forget that other countries also have social problems. It’s hard to find a country where we wouldn’t have these problems,” Larivaara said.

Larivara points to a mental health crisis that hits teens especially hard.

As in many countries, Finland has seen an increase in adolescent mental health problems during the pandemic. By spring 2021, life satisfaction among teens had decreased while anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness increased compared to 2019, according to a study in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, which cited Finnish research, in April.

Overall, the psychological distress of Finnish adolescents had increased over the past two decades, the report said.

Finland also has an aging population. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 21.9% of the Finnish population is aged 65 and over. The country has the third largest percentage of elderly people in the world, just behind Japan and Italy.

And of course there is the wealth distribution. Two girls told me that only the rich people in the city are “lucky” because they can afford to do things like retreat to “summer cottages” in the countryside for the long summer vacations.

Jennifer DePaola with her husband and child

De Paola, her partner and baby Eric.Susanna Nordvall

‘Things weren’t set in stone’

Speaking for herself, De Paola said she had felt an improvement in her zest for life since moving to Finland from Italy, where she grew up.

She appreciated the feeling of being able to pause and change the course of her life in Finland, thanks to the country’s relaxed approach to “milestones.” People take career breaks from time to time and return to universities after work at all ages. “Things weren’t set in stone here,” she said.

After training as a clinical psychologist in Italy, “the natural path would have been to go to psychotherapy school and become a psychotherapist.”

“But here I just took a break and did odd jobs for a few years to figure out what I wanted to do,” says De Paola, who is now a Ph.D.

There have also been some surprises.

When De Paola’s Finnish partner first took her to a ‘summer cottage’ – known as mökki – she noticed that many of the cottages had no electricity and others didn’t even have running water.

Finns prefer to swim in lakes. “That’s a strange thing that makes Finnish people happy,” she said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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