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After four years, the happiness trope has been used by countless Finnish businesses to market products and to attract workers to join the country’s tech sector. Photo: Getty Images

How ‘happiest country’ tag has burnished Finland’s tourism appeal, and even won over some sceptical Finns

  • The ‘world’s happiest’ title is a blessing the country was quick to capitalise on – ‘people are curious about our happiness,’ says its business promotion chief
  • The coronavirus pandemic has kept tourists out but has increased interest online in experiencing Finland’s sparsely populated nature, its saunas, and food
Once notorious for its bland food and long winters, Finland’s repeated success in the annual happiness rankings has helped transform the country’s global reputation, boosting tourism and business.

The United Nations-sponsored World Happiness Report elicited some raised eyebrows when it first placed Finland at the top of its listings in 2018: many of the Nordic country’s 5.5 million people freely describe themselves as taciturn and prone to melancholy, and admit to eyeing public displays of joyfulness with suspicion.

“When I first heard – and I’m not alone, I would say – I had a big laugh,” television producer Tony Ilmoni said, on the streets of the capital Helsinki on Friday, when Finland was crowned the happiest nation on Earth for the fourth year running.

The worldwide survey seeks to quantify individuals’ personal freedom and satisfaction with their lives, using survey data from 149 countries alongside measures such as GDP, social support and perceptions of corruption. Finland excels with its world-class public services, low levels of crime and inequality, and high levels of trust in authority.

Pohjoisesplanadi Street in Helsinki on a winter’s night. Photo: Getty Images

“The basics are really good here: we don’t have anyone living in the streets, we do have unemployment but the health service works, the big things like that,” flower seller Riitta Matilainen said. “But we could be a bit more outgoing and joyful!”

The northern country’s long, dark winters were once reputed to be behind high levels of alcoholism and suicide, but a public health drive has helped cut suicide rates by more than half.

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For tourism and country-branding chiefs, the “world’s happiest” title has been a blessing they were quick to capitalise on.


“It’s a really powerful, emotional, evocative thing to say you’re the happiest country in the world. Why would anyone not want to live in the happiest country in the world?” said Joel Willans, a British digital marketer and creator of the “Very Finnish Problems” social media page, who has lived in Finland since the early 2000s.

“Awareness of Finland has grown during the past few years,” Paavo Virkkunen, head of Finland Promotion Services at Business Finland, said.

An ice surfer skating across the frozen Baltic Sea off the coast of Helsinki. Photo: AFP

After four years, the happiness trope has been used by countless Finnish businesses to market lifestyle products and to try to attract workers to relocate and join the country’s tech sector.

Finland’s unflashy cuisine was once derided as something to “endure” by Italian then-president Silvio Berlusconi, and slammed by his French counterpart Jacques Chirac. But restaurateurs and product manufacturers now tout the simplicity and natural ingredients of Finnish cooking, claiming it as key to the country’s no-nonsense approach to well-being.

The happiness marketing drive has been led, however, by the travel industry, with Finland’s tourist office appointing Finnish “happiness ambassadors” tasked with introducing visitors to the secrets of Finnish well-being.

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“People are curious about [our happiness] and they want to learn about it,” Virkkunen said.


Key to the Finnish brand of happiness are the country’s vast forests and thousands of lakes, as well as the traditional Finnish steam bath, the sauna.

By the start of 2020, tourism to Lapland in northern Finland had reached record levels and the country was attracting more foreign direct investment projects than anywhere else in the Nordics.

Snowy rooftops of the Kruununhaka district in Helsinki. Photo: Getty Images
While pausing international tourism, the coronavirus pandemic has, if anything, increased overseas interest in Finland’s clean, sparsely populated nature, leading tourist providers to offer virtual tours.

“Even though people are not able to travel now, you are able to dream about Finland and the happiness of a true connection with nature, where you can really unwind,” said Virkkunen.

Finland’s four-year dominance in the happiness stakes leaves one problem, however – where to go from here? When this year’s results were announced, “it would’ve been more news if Finland had been knocked off the top spot”, Willans joked.

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The long-time resident believes that the country’s well-functioning society has in fact lowered Finns’ tolerance for when things do go wrong. “They get really aggrieved,” he said. “Their happiness bubble is easily pricked when things don’t go perfectly.”


But the benefits of the world happiness title will be long-lasting, Virkkunen believes. “I think we have grown as a nation, understanding the basics of happiness a bit better than we understood before.”