‘We are content with very little’ – why Finland is the happiest country in the world

For the fifth year in a row, Finland has been named the happiest country in the world by the United Nations World Happiness Report.

nd for the fifth time in a row I am surprised.

In 2001-2002, I lived in Finland for a year as a student on the Rotary Youth Exchange program. It was a life changing experience. I’ve made incredible Finnish friends. I drank too much vodka. I pet a reindeer in Lapland. I went to the sauna, swam in the ice, and rolled naked in the snow until my pink body looked like a ham baked in honey.

It was certainly one of the happiest years of my life. But my Finnish friends? Well, I’m not entirely sure they’ve ever been that happy.

In my experience, the special thing about the Finns is that they are among the most reserved people on this planet. Obvious signs of joy are not in her playbook. I remember having quiet breakfasts with my first host father, watching him stare out the window, barely acknowledging my presence. He wasn’t rude. He was Finnish.

Even at my high school, Imatran Yhteislukio, class management was not an issue. Behavior is not a problem if no one speaks up. Even when I came to the local gym with a school friend for an aerobics class, the vibe was more low-key disco than gym rush. Was this reserved, melancholy mood lucky? Do the Irish (Ireland ranked 13th in the World Happiness Report) or Americans (16th) got this whole luck thing all wrong?

World Happiness Report (Top 20) 2022

1. Finland (7,821)

2. Denmark (7,636)

3. Iceland (7,557)

4. Switzerland (7,512)

5. Netherlands (7,415)

6. Luxembourg* (7,404)

7. Sweden (7,384)

8. Norway (7,365)

9. Israel (7,364)

10. New Zealand (7,200)

11. Austria (7,163)

12. Australia (7,162)

13. Ireland (7,041)

14. Germany (7,034)

15. Canada (7,025)

16. United States (6,977)

17. United Kingdom (6,943)

18. Czech Republic (6,920)

19. Belgium (6,805)

20. France (6,687)

I decided to contact my Finnish friends to find out: Is the World Happiness Report right? Are the Finns really that happy?

“We have a saying in Finland: ‘If you’re happy, you should hide it,'” says Veera Lavikkala, a consultant at a software company in Kirkkonummi, west of Helsinki.

The 37-year-old mother of two says bragging about your happiness is considered clumsy in Finland.


Liisi Hatinen teaches her daughter to skate on Lake Kuolimo. Photo courtesy of Liisi Hatinen

“Finns have a muted luck,” agrees Katja Pantzar, an expert on the topic and author of Everyday Sisu: Harnessing Finnish Strength for a Happier, Resilient Life. Pantzar was born in Finland before her family moved to Australia and eventually to Vancouver, BC where she grew up. When the opportunity to work for Finnair’s in-flight magazine presented itself 20 years ago, she returned to her home country and has never looked back. In fact, she’s so passionate about the Finnish lifestyle—including frequent sauna visits and bike-friendly urban planning—that she’s written two books on the subject.

And she has a special insight into the Finnish psyche. “They may be totally content, but they don’t have the same body language as a smile,” she says. But don’t let the poker faces of the Finns fool you. According to the World Happiness Report, Finns hide a deep satisfaction that comes from appreciating a society that puts the common good first.

“Everyone has access to the basics,” says Liisi Hatinen, communications coordinator in Espoo, a town outside Helsinki, and mother of two. She speaks of guaranteed health care, free schools, living wages and affordable housing. “These programs are well designed and work, so that’s the basic foundation for you to be happy.”

Where people of other nations can measure their success in material wealth – the right car, the bigger house, the best job, the better neighborhood – Finns find satisfaction elsewhere. That was never clearer to me than on Christmas Eve 2001. As is customary in Finland, Santa Claus came to my host family that evening to greet my excited four-year-old host brother Otto. We ate well, exchanged small gifts and went to sleep. I then closed my bedroom door and quietly cut open a huge box overflowing with gifts my parents had sent me.

I tore up the paper as carefully as possible so as not to alarm my hosts; the display of American excess was far too embarrassing. But to my surprise, when my host sisters found my holiday swag the next day, they simply said, “Oh, that’s nice,” without a look of jealousy between them. The joy of spending the holiday with her family seemed reward enough. Who needed more stuff?

“We want to achieve something in our lives,” says Johanna Ovaska, principal of the middle school in Imatra and mother of two children. “But it’s not like ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’ “

Essi Ala-Kokko, a 46-year-old photographer who grew up in Kauhajoki and moved to Chicago for art school, fell in love and stayed, puts it this way, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to be this way we’re just with very little satisfied. We don’t have to have extremely successful careers. We don’t have to have a lot of money. We like the simple things in life, like our forest walks and hanging out with friends. “


The view of Lake Saimaa from the dock of Sirja Lassila’s summer house. Photo: Sirja Lassila

Thanks to the Finnish work-life balance, it’s easy to enjoy downtime. “We get five weeks vacation,” says Jukka Multisilta, a strategy consultant in Helsinki. That contrasts with the average 10 days of paid time off Americans have, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example.

Multisilta recently accompanied a friend on a 10 day motorcycle trip from Helsinki to Nordkapp, the northernmost tip of Norway. Along the way, he and his friend had access to free open wilderness cabins maintained by Finland’s national park system, a perk that made outdoor adventures more affordable. The trip was incredible, he says. “The light is so crazy when you drive north, so everything looks magical.”

Of course, Finns don’t need to drive at all to get into nature. There are green spaces everywhere in the country with more than five million inhabitants. “I have four winter swimming spots within a two-kilometer radius of my house,” says Pantzar.

But let’s face it: while ice diving is thought to be physically and mentally beneficial, I have a hard time believing that Finns are polar bears lucky enough to swim.

And a walk in the woods isn’t the answer either, although I’m sure it’s great for mindfulness.

Tuition-free education but? This will improve your mood. Sure, Finns pay more in taxes for the privilege, but my friends tell me that not breaking the college bills was worth it.

Lavikkala and her sister were the first in their family to go to high school, she says, and they “both went to college. We both have degrees. We didn’t have to take out student loans. You can be anything you want in Finland.”

And that’s the thing. There are many stressors that Finns, especially Finnish women, need not worry about.

“I really think that the position of women is a big factor in our happiness,” says Ovaska. “Have you seen our government? We have a prime minister. [Sanna Marin] is 36 years old. Then we have four other prime ministers who are also young women. So it’s quite a lot of girl power.”

Reaching the highest ranks of public office isn’t such a crazy idea when the government actually supports motherhood. Hatinen is now on her 12th month of maternity/parental leave. It could last a total of three years if she wanted, but decided on just over a year. “I get 70 percent of my salary, and if I take more time after 10 months, I think it drops to 300 euros a month,” she says.

As far as day care goes, don’t fret over that price either. “Finland offers free universal daycare from eight months until the start of formal education at age seven,” according to the World Economic Forum. But more importantly, should a woman or her baby fall ill in Finland, regardless of the prognosis, the treatment will not be as financially devastating as in other countries.

“I plan to tell my son about his birth soon,” says Sirja Lassila, a Swedish teacher and mother of two in Imatra. Three weeks before his due date, she had noticed that her baby had suddenly stopped moving in the womb. Her husband drove her to the nearby hospital, where she had an emergency C-section. Resuscitated after delivery, her son still required intensive care, so he was taken in an ambulance the 239 km to Helsinki, to the country’s best children’s hospital. He was very well cared for and was able to return home in an ambulance a week later.

“It wasn’t entirely free,” she says in a correction email to me the day after our interview. I brace myself for the number and scroll down the email. “We paid a few bills, about 200 to 300 euros in total,” she writes. How’s that for a happy ending?

Of course, life in Finland is not perfect. Toni Tikkanen, a documentary writer on the Finnish TV series Arman Pohjantahden alla (Arman under the North Star), is quick to tell me that like the rest of the world, there is racism, inequality, violence, depression and suicide.

But he adds: “I think as a nation we’re trying pretty hard to make a change for the better and we have a pretty strong support system.”

So is Finland the happiest country? Tikkanen says yes.

After talking to these Finns, I also agree. Turns out I misjudged Finnish luck.

The still Finn face isn’t rude, it’s an expression of understated composure.

©Washington Post ‘We are content with very little’ – why Finland is the happiest country in the world

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