* In March 2020, the World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations, named Finland as the happiest country, a position it has held since 2018
* Easy access to unspoilt nature and high levels of social trust as well as social equality make the Finnish people happy and stress free
Finland has gloomy weather and little sunlight in winter. Limited hours of daylight are commonly associated with mental health disorders and depressive symptoms. Yet Finland, for the third year in a row, has been ranked the happiest country in the world.
So what is life like in Finland? Also, how can happiness even be measured?
In March 2020, the World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations, named Finland as the happiest country, a position it has held since 2018. The report is based on the ‘respondent ratings of their own lives’, answers that are correlated with various life factors. The main measure used in the index is life satisfaction. Antti Kauppinen, who teaches practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki, says, “Finland is not just a welfare state, it is a well-being state. While the index doesn’t directly capture happiness, there is a correlation between how people feel and how they tend to respond to questions about life satisfaction. That’s why such indices are not useless, even if they are not as precise as the ranking might suggest.” He describes the key features that add up to this happiness: Easy access to unspoilt nature and high levels of social trust as well as social equality.
If there’s one thing Finland has in abundance, it’s nature. It has bountiful forests and thousands of lakes. Come November and the Finnish Lapland turns into a winter wonderland with tourists from all over the world flocking to Rovaniemi, the official village of Santa Claus. Northern Finland is also one of the best spots in the world for viewing the Northern Lights. In the summer, people head to the lakes, and it is common knowledge that almost every Finnish family owns a lakeside cottage. Finnish nature operates on the principle of ‘everyman’s right’ or jokamiehenoikeudet — which allows everyone living in or visiting Finland the right to every landscape, regardless of who owns it. One can walk, ski, skate, cycle, boat, camp and pick berries/mushroom as long as nature is not disturbed or harmed.
Finland is also a country known for its high level of social trust. “If you have a general trust in other people, you are not thinking about it. It’s not the focus of your attention. But it still lifts you up,” Kauppinen explains. “If you have to constantly watch out for someone trying to take advantage of you, you will be stressed and anxious, and therefore unhappy. Additionally, Finnish people trust the police more than anyone else, which says a lot, because the police is authorised to use violence,” he adds.
The third key feature — social equality — is characteristic of Nordic countries, but what stands out in Finland is education and childcare services. On a rare sunny morning during a recent visit, I drop by at a local school in Turku, the former capital and second largest city in Finland. The playground is blanketed in snow as children run around the place. Students are encouraged to play outdoors every single day, regardless of the weather. Finland also has the highest number of schoolchildren who go to school on their own from a young age. Finnish education is of top quality and free. Public schools are so good that there is almost no concept of private schooling.
“Schools are truly equal in the sense it doesn’t matter where you live. All schools are good and teachers are highly trained,” Kauppinen says. “This is really important, as then you don’t have people getting ahead of you already at age five.”
Daycare, on the other hand, is not free, but chargeable proportional to family income. It is still not expensive, and almost everybody uses childcare services. These services have also played a great role in paving the way for equality between sexes; mothers are easily able to return to work. Finland’s Sanna Marin recently became the world’s youngest prime minister at 34. This, clubbed with free public healthcare and unemployment benefits, makes for a social safety net. “People believe that this safety net works well. It gives them the feeling of being cared for,” Kauppinen says.
On my way back from Turku, the weather turns dark and gloomy. The snow has melted, giving way to slush. A snowy city is still cheery but Helsinki has been getting much less of it over the past few years. Most days in the winter, the city is rainy, grey and quiet. The people you meet won’t have smiles plastered on their faces, but they will be relaxed, tranquil and satisfied.
That’s what life is like in the happiest country in the world.
Srishti Chaudhary is the author of Lallan Sweets and Once upon a Curfew