Chilled out Finns are world’s happiest people

Ice bath: Scientists say cold water swimming is good for your mental health. © Getty

Should all countries be more like Finland? The Scandinavian state has been named the world’s happiest nation – again. Now some say we could all learn from the Nordic way of life.

On a cold and gloomy winter day in Helsinki, the few brave Finns wandering around the city’s food market are looking distinctly miserable.

“We are quite quiet, we are quite serious, we like to spend time alone,” one woman tells a reporter as she shelters from the snow under a red marquee.

It does not sound like the recipe for joy. So it may come as a surprise to learn that last week, researchers named Finland as the happiest country in the world.

But this is not a short lived triumph. For four years in a row, Finland has reigned supreme in the UN’s World Happiness Report, which measures quality of life by looking at factors such as GDP, social support, freedom and life expectancy.

Nor is it the only Scandinavian success story – Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all made the top 10 in 2021. Meanwhile, the UK fell from 13th to 18th place.

So why exactly are the Finns so happy?

Progressive politics. Finland has both universal healthcare and a flourishing welfare system. And more than 80% of Finns trust the police force.

Outdoor pursuits. Winter swimming through the ice is not just about self-determination. Emerging from freezing water also helps the body produce more serotonin.

Work life balance. The country is one of the pioneers of the flat working model, which removes the hierarchy between bosses and their employees. Finnish workers are flexible and productive – and they have plenty of time for leisure.

Gender equality. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin is committed to closing the gender pay gap. And it is the only nation in the developed world where fathers spend more time with their school-aged children than mothers do.

Life philosophy. The spirit of sisu – meaning stoic perseverance – underpins everything that it means to be Finnish, says entrepreneur Heikki Väänänen. Nevertheless, the Finns are not afraid of failure: National Failure Day is held on 13 October every year to celebrate making mistakes as a normal part of life.

Of course, not everyone in Finland spends their days jumping for joy. The market-goers in Helsinki have a lot to complain about. For much of the year, Finland is dark, dreary and dismally cold. In Lapland, the sun sets in November and does not rise again until mid-January. Even in the densely populated south, the winter daylight lasts just six hours.

Indeed, this state of near-permanent darkness is one explanation for the mental health crisis many believe is haunting Finland.

And when the summer sun does shine through at last, some regions are so plagued by mosquitoes that one northern town, Pelkosenniemi, has set up a yearly mosquito swatting championship.

Still, for Heikki Väänänen, the reasons for happiness in Finland are obvious. “The country consistently pushes the boundaries of working and socioeconomic culture in order to be the most progressive and forward-thinking nation, not for itself, but for the sake of its people,” he says.

Should all countries be more like Finland?

Finntopia

Of course, say some. Finland has unlocked the key to happiness. It would be foolish for other countries not to learn from its success – every government should be able to adopt progressive policies such as flexible working to ensure equality for all. And on a personal level, people everywhere could benefit hugely from taking on the philosophy of sisu – and the occasional cold water swim.

It is not so simple, say others. Despite its name, the World Happiness Report does not directly measure feelings of joy. Moreover, if Finnish contentment depends on a culture of stoic perseverance in a hard and frozen land, then perhaps other countries should think twice before they seek to emulate the Finns. There is a dark side to living in Finland – quite literally.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live in Finland?
  2. Is “stoic perseverance” the best attitude to life?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with your own definition of happiness. Is there anything you truly need in life to be happy? Then compare your definition with the rest of the class.
  2. Use the expert links to choose one of 2021’s top 20 happiest countries. Then make a short presentation detailing the advantages and disadvantages to life in your chosen country.

Some People Say...

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865), American President and lawyer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that coronavirus had a big impact on the way researchers came up with this year’s list. In many countries, face-to-face interviews proved to be impossible. But despite the virus, the top 10 countries saw no significant decline in wellbeing when measured by people’s evaluation of their own lives. “One possible explanation is that people see Covid-19 as a common, outside threat and that this has generated a greater sense of solidarity,” says researcher John Helliwell.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether some of the factors measured by the World Happiness Index – including social support, freedom, corruption and GDP – actually equate to feelings of happiness. Frank Martela, a Finnish wellbeing expert, points out that there is not one definition of happiness. Measures such as GDP do seem to positively equate to life satisfaction. But if you look at reports of positive experiences, it is poorer Latin American countries like Paraguay that come out top.

Word Watch

GDP
Gross Domestic Product is the total value of all goods and services produced by a country in a specific time period. In 2019, Finland had a GDP of £194bn.
Serotonin
The key hormone that stabilises mood, feelings of well-being and happiness.
Sanna Marin
At 35, Marin is the world’s youngest female state leader. She is also Finland’s youngest ever Prime Minister.
Sisu
Sisu originates from the word “sisus”, meaning “guts”. In 1745, one Finnish bishop defined “sisucunda” as the location in the body where strong emotions come from.
Lapland
The largest and most northern region of Finland. It has a population of just 178,000.
Mental health crisis
One 2019 study found that Finland’s rate of mental illness is 18.8%, higher than any other EU country. The most common issues are depression and alcohol abuse.
Championship
The person who swats the most mosquitoes in five minutes is the winner. The record is 21 mosquitoes.

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