A few weeks ago, the World Happiness Report published its yearly global survey results about how people from more than 150 countries worldwide evaluated their lives. The full report can be found here (page 22).
The polling company Gallup conducts interviews with hundreds of thousands of people across the nations included in the report. People assess their own happiness using a scale from 1 to 10, responding to questions such as if they smiled, laughed or experienced enjoyment the previous day. Other questions are binary (either 0 or 1): “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” or “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?”
To measure trustworthiness, the survey also includes the so-called “wallet question” (if you lose your wallet containing $200, how likely a neighbor, a police officer, or a stranger would return your wallet). To quote from the report:
To return a wallet requires a level of benevolence extending far beyond basic trustworthiness, since the finder has to go out of their way, often at considerable effort, to do a good turn for someone else.
It is no surprise that people are happier if they live in a community where others stand ready to help. Knowing that others are acting in such a way has been shown in experimental studies to encourage others to do good turns, making them even happier.
Then, the World Happiness Report processes survey data, as well as economic and social data. Six main criteria determine the happiness index of a country: gross domestic product per capita (data available from the World Bank), healthy life expectancy (data available from the World Health Organisation), social support, freedom to make one’s life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of corruption levels (data from Gallup surveys). Some variables such as unemployment or inequality are not considered because there is no available data for the entire sample of countries.
Each country from the survey is compared to a hypothetical country, Dystopia, used as a regression benchmark, which scores the lowest national averages for each of the six key variables.
These reports are not without critics, as they are based on subjective assessments from people, but they prove helpful if we compare the happiness index for the same country over the years, as in this case, all the variable factors stay the same.
And this brings us to Finland, a country experiencing harsh climatic conditions, caught for centuries between the rule of Sweden and Russia, enduring a civil war between Whites, the conservative-based senate and Reds, the socialists, in 1918 (its first months of independence), the Winter War and the Continuation War against the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1941, respectively. The Finns invented the Molotov cocktail, a reference to Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the principal architects of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact. During the Winter War, in response to the Soviet propaganda that the bombing missions over Finland were humanitarian food deliveries for starving people, the Finns developed a firebomb to attack the Soviet tanks (the Molotov cocktail), “a drink to go with his [Molotov’s] food parcels”.
Yet, in 2022, Finland was crowned the world’s happiest country for the fifth year in a row.
Jukka Lindstrom, a writer and standup comedian, declared to New York Times in 2021:
“Four times [imagine what he would say about five times in a row] is too much… The weather is like the worst day in London, every day,” he said. “There’s definitely something in our history that makes us have this kind of low self-esteem as a nation, always feeling like an underdog.”
And so, how did Finns build a happy country?
Looking back over their history, we learn about Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century. He also led the Whites in successfully suppressing the Reds in the Finnish Civil War.
Mannerheim regarded child welfare as a sterling investment in Finland’s future, not only in the creation of a healthy population, but in the healing of old wounds between the Reds and Whites.
Jonathan Clements, Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy
In 1920, two years after the Finnish Civil war, the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare was established (Mannerheim initially opposed that the league be given his name, but he conceded to the unanimous wish of the other participants).
The goal of the work should be that every single child in Finland, from birth and throughout his or her growth period, receives a rightful share of the affection and care that alone can lay the foundation for the development of young people into good and useful citizens.
To prevent infant mortality, in 1937, the league started distributing a basket with baby supplies (blankets, crib sheets, diapers, etc.) to low-income mothers. To get the basket, the mothers had to apply for healthcare during pregnancy. In 1949, the maternity allowance became available to all mothers.
And nowadays, the Finnish maternity package is an iconic social innovation. The 2022 edition of the maternity package contains 43 different products, ranging from a snowsuit, booties, mittens, sleeping bag, blanket, clothes in gender-neutral colours, the first book, toys, to personal care items (usual stuff for babies such as thermometer, hairbrush, toothbrush, nail scissors). The package also includes nipple cream, bra pads, sanity towels, and condoms. All items are included in a box that can be used as the baby’s first crib. No bottles, formula, nappies, or soothers are included.
Implementing such a system (giving a maternity box to all mothers, not only low-income families) benefits the whole society. Otherwise, higher-income households would believe that the maternity package is just another welfare form coming out of their taxes. Lower-income families that would barely cross the income line and not get the box might become frustrated. Allowing all families to have access to the same maternity package creates the narrative that all children should start from the same point in life, leading to a relatively egalitarian Finnish society.
And then this package is a thread linking generations as all grandparents, parents, and children would have shared the same concept of sleeping in a box and getting their first baby items from the government.
This social reform is low-hanging fruit, as the total maternity grant program costs around 10.3 million euros per year for a country of roughly 5.5 million people, but with tremendous social benefits, pouring through all levels of society.
Another social reform is how Finland approaches maternity/paternity leave. Starting this year, all parents will get the same parental leave to allow fathers to spend more time with their babies. Each parent would receive 6.6 months’ leave, pregnant women would benefit from an extra month’s allowance, and single parents would use both allowances.
Important to mention that prenatal and perinatal care is free, like all health services in Finland.
And then we have the famous Finnish education system, which is among the best in the world, consistently scoring top results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Admittedly, there are some worries about the latest Finnish PISA results. The gender gap in reading and science literacy results has consistently been one of the highest in the participating countries (52 points in favour of girls versus boys, compared with an average of 30 points in OECD countries).
A major societal equalizer is that all Finnish pupils get a free hot lunch every day at school. This practice started in the ’40s, alongside the maternity package for all mothers.
People in Finland are generally proud of the country’s long history of providing free school meals. A good lunch is more than nutrition. It is something that gives pleasure, relaxes, refreshes, maintains the ability to work and helps children grow healthy. A good school meal is seen as an investment in the future.
Also, children from different backgrounds sharing the same meals strengthen equal opportunities, as nobody feels ashamed of their lunch package. When babies are dressed the same, then when they grow up, they eat the same meals and learn in the same schools (Finland has few private schools), it becomes easier to build a relatively egalitarian society.
A fascinating article about Finnish education myths and facts can be read here.
An insight into Finnish education and how heavily Finland relies on education and knowledge is made by Jonathan Clements:
Speaking from first-hand experience, a lot of the success of the Finnish education system is down to the simple fact that it is chock full of Finns, gently cherished by a social security system that ensures square meals for all and a good home environment. Finnish education also happily calves off the more practically-minded into vocational training in their teens, creating a ready army of cooks, beauticians, hair-dressers, plumbers, carpenters and electricians. In one of many beautifully simple and palpably beneficial incentives in Finnish law, all households are eligible for an annual tax break for home improvement and domestic services, as long as the money is spent on accredited labourers. This generates massive demand for painters, decorators, builders, child-minders and cleaners, finding ample employment for many vocational school graduates, but also ensuring that their work is run through the system and taxed. Not only is Finland mercifully short on cowboy builders, but most homes are suitably ready to brave the next harsh winter.
Or a thought about the Finnish railways that tells a whole story about the Finnish mindset to optimize and ensure equal resources for everyone:
To hear some Finns talk about their railway system, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a third-world shambles, but they have clearly never been to Britain.
Finnish trains are a paradise of comfort and efficiency, and distinguished by some neat touches like free travel for any children accompanied by an adult (including teenagers, hence reducing the numbers of unaccompanied louts), children’s carriages with their own play rooms, and free travel for any off-duty police who wear their uniforms, ensuring a little bit of bonus security.
Other numerous aspects can be told about what makes Finland a happy country: impressive landscape and nature, which makes for outdoor activities, the general feeling of safety (many children go to school and back on their own), a general mindset of not trying to keep up with the Joneses (“Vain rumat ne vaatteilla koreilee“, an old Finnish saying that means “only ugly people need to dress up” – a tidbit about the Finnish mentality and how they regarded fashion as non-essential. Also, remember the Finnish weather).
Perhaps happiness is not about wishing for the moon but a sense of keeping to yourself and finding contentment in the essentials.
Janne Berliini, 49, said he was happy enough. “I have work,” he said. “The basic things are in order.”
Communal saunas create another equalizing effect rippling through society, as everyone strips down not just of clothes but also any sign of high status.
Maybe Finns consider themselves happy because of antidepressants, as Finland is one of the top European countries regarding antidepressants. Perhaps. Or perhaps high antidepressant consumption is either related to a proficient health service around mental issues or to the long dark months with sparse sunlight.
In a future article, I will talk about kansalaisopisto or työväenopisto, another Finnish social innovation about inexpensive adult education centres.
Of course, as with any country, Finland surely has its problems. But for a country that has proverbs such as “pessimistic ei koskaan pety” (the pessimist will never be disappointed) or “itku pitkästä ilosta” (happiness will always end in tears), it is a magnificent feat to achieve the status of world’s happiest country by building a democratic, egalitarian, well-functioning, and highly-educated society with low levels of corruption.
After all, in the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today.
Note: If you want to crack a few smiles about Finns, check the Finland related comics from Scandinavia and the World.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/what-makes-finland-a-happy-country/