Finland Is Having Trouble Believing It’s the Happiest Country in the World
The Nordic nation just won the distinction for the fourth year in a row
The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network just released its annual World Happiness Report, and yet again, Finland is at the top of the rankings. But for New Zealand at nine, the top 10 featured a familiar Northern European sweep (in order): Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Austria.
Finland steals the show, though, now earning its fourth number one ranking in as many years.
And yet — all the recognition has left some Finns somewhat apoplectic. One Finnish writer said to The New York Times: “Four times in a row is too much. [The weather] is like the worst day in London, every day. 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.”
A reminder of the World Happiness Report’s process: it’s one giant, globe-spanning survey. The project doesn’t crunch numbers; it surveys hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 100 countries, to gauge their sense of satisfaction and security with daily life. For years now, sociologists have criticized the very idea of measuring cheeriness, but recently, at least, the report no longer reaches results based on weighty, macro figures like a nation’s GDP, unemployment rate, or life expectancy. It actually put boots on the ground to talk to people.
And when the Finns answer questions like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”, “Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?” or “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?”, the World Happiness Report appears to really like what it’s hearing.
Still, even then, the definition of happiness is nebulous. Look at Finland hard enough, and the country really just seems “content.” Finns aren’t skipping down the sidewalk laughing their heads off all the time (quite the contrary, they are generally portrayed as a rather stoic people); they’re just self-assured participants in a fair and efficient society where college is free, the national pension system is top-notch, 80% of lakes are considered “excellent in quality” (the best rate on the planet), and crime is non-existent.
That’s not to say the Finns can’t be silly. One national pastime, which has recently become a lifestyle trend export, is kalsarikänni, or “pantsdrunk” — the act of getting drunk inside in one’s underwear. But even that tradition is born of resilience, a way to get through winters where the sky offers just a few half-hearted hours of sunlight each day.
As early as 2018, the Finns were confused about their dominance of the happiness rankings. But Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark has a handy final word for what’s going on here: “It’s probably more accurate to say that the Finns are the least unhappy people in the world. They always do well at reducing the causes of unhappiness … They are simply better at converting wealth into wellbeing.”
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