When I asked Frank Martela what makes him happy, he held out his phone and showed me a photo of a row of brightly colored children’s bikes.
“I was taking my youngest kid to preschool when I saw all these tiny bicycles — hundreds of them parked outside,” he said.
Some of the kids, who are as young as 7, travel to and from school by themselves and go out to play alone too.
Martela, a philosopher and researcher at Aalto University in Espoo, 12 miles from Finland’s capital Helsinki, treasures the freedom his three children have there.
“Young children can move on their own,” he said. “It’s something that Finnish people might not think about if they’ve never been outside the country. They just take it for granted.”
Finland’s high levels of social trust could be one reason the country has been ranked as the world’s happiest for six years in a row. As the World Happiness Report, which does the ranking, notes, most Finns expect their wallet to be returned to them if they lose it.
“In Helsinki it is completely normal to leave the baby outside, obviously with a baby monitor and if possible by the window, so you can see the stroller while shopping or having coffee,” said Jennifer De Paola, a social psychologist and an expert on Finnish happiness who moved to Finland when she was 25.
(When I interviewed her in a cafe in Helsinki, De Paola’s seven month old was napping at her side.)
The country is also known for its focus on work-life balance. That point is underscored when I go to meet Heli Jimenez, of Visit Finland, at a Helsinki office block shortly after 5 p.m. Apart from us, the place is almost completely empty as workers have left for the day.
Jimenez told me that Finns are surprised that people in other countries don’t have “simple skills,” like how to build a fire out in nature.
So Finns have liberated children, trust their neighbors, commune 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’re always surprised that we are still the first,” Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate, told me in yet another Helsinki coffee shop. “Every year there is a debate like ‘How is this possible?’”
In fact, locals I spoke to were exasperated by the survey and even annoyed by global perception of them as happy. Mentions of the report prompts eye-rolls and sighs.
“We don’t agree with it, it’s just not real for us,” an interior designer told me, without giving me a name.
A better word to describe Finns would be “content,” Jimenez said. “Because we are satisfied with our lives.”
A different question
Part of the problem is with the survey itself, which is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and written by a team of independent experts.
The rankings data is taken from the Gallup World Poll, a worldwide survey that asks people to rate their lives on an imagined ladder measuring the best and worst possible life for them. Respondents score their own lives on a 0 to 10 scale.
“The question that they asked the participants is how satisfied you are with your life at the moment. So there is no mention of happiness,” said De Paola.
“Happiness has more to do with emotions and the way the 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 linked to happiness than the concept of life satisfaction.
“It’s just sexier to call it the World Happiness Report rather than calling it the life satisfaction report.”
Finns don’t view themselves as exceptionally happy people. In fact, the country can be quite pessimistic.
Finnish people are “not so good at creating an atmosphere of optimism,” said Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate. But she’s quick to add that pessimism and contentment can exist simultaneously.
Finnish people are often stereotyped as introverted and keeping to themselves. Finns mind their own business, my Finnish grandmother tells me.
During the summer, those with the means might retreat to private summer cottages in the countryside for weeks at a time.
Yes, the climate is punishing. The country’s winters are cold and abnormally dark, especially in the north, where there is almost continual darkness in the winter.
But it’s 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 right now, maybe call back tomorrow,” one local said of the survey.
A safety net
Maybe it’s not so much that Finns are happy, but that they don’t have some of the intense fears that you might find in other places.
Finland’s government sponsors one of the most robust welfare systems in the world. In 2021, the Nordic 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 residents get a lot in return.
Healthcare and education are free for all residents — all the way through to the Ph.D. level. The country also pays for a proportion of families’ childcare costs and workers are entitled to four weeks of summer holiday and one week of winter holiday on top of the country’s 13 national holidays.
Finns are socialized and taught from a young age not to settle for poor working conditions, De Paola said: “Proper pay, proper breaks, proper working hours, and to have a job that matches their abilities — these are all things that every Finnish person expects.”
For example, if you lose your job in Finland, the state will help out until you find a new one. “You don’t have to care so much about money as in somewhere like the US,” Martela said. “If I lose my job, that doesn’t affect my kids’ education or my wife’s healthcare or anything like that.”
Finns generally are also less dramatic in their aspirations when it comes to things like wealth and generally share an “attainable” idea of what it means to be content with your life.
“I wouldn’t say that they don’t dream big, but they dream attainable,” De Paola said.
‘We have problems as well’
As fun as such ratings can be to share and debate, they of course obscure the challenges experienced in any country, even Finland.
“People forget that other countries have social problems as well. It’s hard to find a country where we wouldn’t have these issues,” Larivaara said.
Larivaara points to a mental health crisis that is hitting teenagers particularly hard.
As in many countries, Finland has seen a rise in mental health problems in adolescents during the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, satisfaction with life had decreased among teenagers, while anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness increased in comparison to 2019, according to a study in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, which cited Finnish research, in April.
Overall, mental health complaints from Finnish adolescents had been increasing in the last two decades, per the report.
Finland also has an aging population. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 21.9% of Finland’s population is 65 and over. The country has the third largest percentage of older people in the world, coming in just behind Japan and Italy.
And of course there is wealth division. Two girls told me only the wealthy people in the city are “happy” as they can afford to do things like retreat to “summer cottages” in the countryside for the long summer vacations.
‘Things were not set in stone’
Speaking for herself, De Paola said she had felt an uplift in her life satisfaction since moving to Finland from Italy, where she grew up.
She most valued feeling that in Finland she could pause and change the course of her life, thanks to the country’s relaxed approach to “milestones.” People take periodic career breaks and return to universities at all ages after working. “Things were not set in stone here,” she said.
After training to be 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 pause and did odd jobs for some years to figure out what I wanted to do,” said De Paola, who’s now pursuing a Ph.D.
There have also been some surprises.
When De Paola’s Finnish partner took her to a “summer cottage” — known as mökki — for the first time, she noticed many of the cottages didn’t have electricity, and others don’t even have running water.
Finns enjoy bathing in lakes instead. “That’s something strange that makes Finnish people happy,” she said.
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