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Nordic nations

Who’s the happiest country in the world? Apparently it’s Finland, although the Finns themselves don’t quite believe it

Finns have an efficient health care system, flexible working hours and generous parental leave, making it possible to balance work and family life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 9:14pm

Finns have long been perceived as taciturn and introverted people in a country known for its dark, cold winters and high suicide rate. Today, they are also considered the world’s happiest.

In the just released 2018 UN World Happiness Report, Finland took the top spot followed by its Scandinavian neighbours and Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“When we heard about it, we thought it was a mistake,” said Ulla-Maija Rouhiainen, a 64-year-old retiree living in Helsinki.

The UN report found that Finland and the other countries at the top of the rankings all performed well on key issues that support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.

Finns’ happiness, as often seen in acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s emotionless films, is based on the fact that their basic needs are being met.

When you’re in a sauna, you feel really happy
Teri Kauranen

For philosopher Frank Martela, life satisfaction depends on how well a country’s institutions function, social equality, freedom, lack of corruption, trust in government and in each other.

Finland excels in each of these areas. Wage gaps are narrow, and the annual median salary in 2015 was 25,694 (US$31,575). That compares to 21,970 in France and to 7,352 in Latvia the same year.

Along with Norway, Finland is the only European country to have succeeded in cutting the number of homeless people between 2014 and 2016, according to a study by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) published earlier this week.

Overall, Finns daily lives are generally harmonious. They have an efficient health care system, flexible working hours and generous parental leave, making it possible to balance work and family life.

Neither the heavy tax burden, which pays for efficient public services, nor the centre-right government’s austerity measures, aimed at boosting economic recovery after years of slump, are questioned.

And they trust their welfare state: 81 per cent of Finns have confidence in the education system compared to an OECD average of 67 per cent. And 75 per cent trust the judicial system compared to the international organisation’s average of 55 per cent.

After spending 18 years abroad, Finland’s social welfare model drew Henrika Tonder, her French husband and their children back to the country.

“You can achieve a life balance between work and personal life where people finish work between 4pm and 5pm, which still leaves us time to do things for ourselves and to spend time with our families,” she said.

In a nation where few people go to church, saunas, one of the most popular leisure activities, have replaced mass. The 5.5 million Finns indulge in the steamy relaxation at least once a week.

“When you’re in a sauna, you feel really happy,” said 68-year-old Teri Kauranen, warming herself after a chilly dip in the sea.

What is the secret formula to top the world happiness ranking?

Yet tough times require resilience, and Finns are known for their stoic attitude towards life, attributed to their cultural concept sisu: the ability to stand strong against adversity and recover from disaster.

If the UN definition of happiness ignored the main indicators and was based on measuring positive emotions, then Finland “would not reach the top 10”, according to Frank Martela.

The nation’s suicide rate (14.1 per 100,000 in 2014), consumption of alcohol and antidepressants remain high.