Image: Sbamueller, via Flickr.
For the fifth year in a row, Finland, according to the World Happiness Report 2022,¹ has the highest “evaluation of life,” and thus is judged to be the “happiest” country in the world. When I told some friends that a Canadian journal had asked me to write a piece on why the Finns are so happy, they wished me good luck and warned that I had bitten off more than I could chew.
This is not the first time Finns have been taken by surprise and have felt somewhat embarrassed at the world’s attention. In 2000 the Global Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum and Harvard University, ranked Finland number one in global competitiveness, ahead of the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. From 2003 onward, Finland was often the best in the PISA exams for 15-year-olds, comprising reading, mathematics and science. In 2009 the Legatum Prosperity Index, “the world’s only global assessment of wealth and wellbeing,” placed Finland on top. The next year Newsweek, seeking to find out “which country would provide you the very BEST OPPORTUNITY to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life,” awarded Finland the title “The Best Country in the World.” When I wrote a piece titled “Finland: A Remote and Cold Country’s Success Story” for Inroads in 2009, I stressed geohistorical, cultural and institutional factors and drew on the rich data published in a Canadian study comparing high- and low-tax countries.
Finnish media have not said much about the new happiness report. The government-funded Good News from Finland, “a service that covers positive and globally interesting news topics related to Finnish businesses and innovations,” noted it in a rather laconic report that began:
Finland has been named the world’s happiest country for the fifth consecutive year in the 10th edition of the World Happiness Report.
The country secured the top spot with a score that was “significantly ahead” of other countries in the top 10: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel and New Zealand.
The Nordics overall were commended for strong social cohesion, excellent balance between family and working life, and free education and healthcare. The authors of the report also viewed that the region merits special attention for their generally high levels of personal and institutional trust, and handling of COVID-19.²
The scores for the eight countries are shown in table 1. More remarkable than Finland’s number one position for the fifth year in a row is that its lead over number two, Denmark, has widened perceptibly.
Why “happiness” has risen in Finland while the opposite is the case for most other comparable countries is a mystery. After the financial crisis that started in 2008, Finland’s economy recovered more slowly than the economies of most other nations. Finland was hit by the demise of Nokia’s mobile phones and by the stagnant global demand for both paper and investment goods – Finland’s leading exports. Furthermore, as a member of the euro area, Finland not only was dragged down by the euro crisis but also couldn’t adjust its exchange rate, whereas its main rival, Sweden, could. The economy reached its pre-crisis level only shortly before the COVID pandemic broke out. So why did “happiness” increase in Finland despite the many economic troubles that started in 2009 and continued for almost a decade? Is it possible to explain why the Finns seems to be so satisfied with their life?
Each country’s happiness score is based on people’s answers to a single question:
Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
The happiness report uses six variables to assess how much they contribute to the total score of each country. On the basis of these results, I compare Finland to three Nordics – Denmark, Sweden and Norway – and four majority English-speaking countries – Ireland, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Comparing the variables, however, gives only partial insights, and therefore I extend some personal thoughts on why the Finns have responded so positively to the question on which the report is based.
The first two variables chosen to assess why the 150 countries included in the study get their different scores are available from standard UN organizations:
- GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (World Development Indicators)
- Healthy life expectancy (WHO Global Health Observatory data repository)
The remaining four variables depend on a set of questions answered by the respondents included in the poll. These are expressed feelings rather than systematically produced facts:
- Social support – “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”
- Freedom to make life choices – “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”
- Generosity – “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?”
- Corruption perception – “Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not” and “Is corruption widespread within businesses or not?”
But the six explaining variables don’t explain everything. Hence there is a seventh category that measures the extent to which life evaluations are higher or lower than those predicted by the six variables. This “prediction error” (which could be positive or negative) is added to the score of a hypothetical country called “Dystopia,” so named because it has “values equal to the world’s lowest national averages.” Dystopia’s score is calculated at 1.83.
As can be seen in table 2, Finland does not score exceptionally well on several of the variables. Its GDP per capita is the lowest of the eight countries. Healthy life expectancy in Finland is lower than in the other Nordics, Ireland and Canada. Finnish generosity is surprisingly low in comparison to the rest. It is, however, on top in three of the variables: social support, freedom to make life choices and corruption perception. And truly, Finns do care about their relatives and friends and participate actively in voluntary organizations. The educational system and the social services guaranteed by the welfare state do broaden the freedom to make life choices. People do trust the authorities and one another. If you say you are going to do something, you can be counted on to do it – on time.
But the residual category is the one in which Finland most clearly stands out. This means that much of Finland’s superiority remains unexplained. I suggest a few factors that may help fill this explanatory gap.
One factor is the remarkable size of the “boomer” generation in Finland. The largest population cohorts are those born after World War II. The same goes for many countries, but the Finnish case is exceptional, with 23 per cent of the population aged over 65. In general, as the world report also shows, the 60-plus age group is significantly happier than the average, possibly because of pensioning. As the boomers retire, average happiness increases relatively more in Finland because of its extraordinary age structure.
Another factor is that Finns are more used to and better prepared for a variety of crisis situations. The Finnish civil war of 1918, the wars in which Finland was defeated between 1939 and 1944, the accommodation to Soviet pressure during the Cold War and the extreme depression of the 1990s are the clearest examples. Finland’s preparedness laws and reserves are much superior to Sweden’s, and I suspect that the same is true in relation to other countries. When the pandemic started, Finland was able to react faster and was better equipped than most countries. Especially in crisis times, people trust the leadership and are prepared to follow instructions issued by the government and official experts. Closeness to nature was an important factor during the COVID pandemic. People moved to their summer cottages or engaged in distance work. Those staying in the cities made frequent family excursions to nearby forest lands. A joke had it that Finns enjoyed the end of the pandemic social distancing guideline of two metres, since now they could keep a distance of five metres!
But still. How is it possible that Finns are so lucky – or are they? I will mention two factors that, to my knowledge, have not previously been part of the discussion.
One has to do with the grades given in schools in Finland. These grades range from 4 to 10: a 4, the lowest number, means that you have failed; a 7 is quite satisfactory; and an 8 is rather good. To be accepted into a gymnasium – as is half the cohort yearly – you should have an average of at least 7, and an average of 8 will most likely be enough. I am afraid that Finnish respondents, asked to assess their well-being on a scale of 0 to 10, might be influenced by this grading system. Whereas in most other countries a 6 might be considered satisfactory and a 7 quite good, Finns might think of a 7 as just satisfactory and 8 as acceptable.
Despite this caveat, I believe that the rankings done by the happiness researchers are largely correct. And in that regard I would like to highlight the influence on Finnish national culture of three Germans. There are other Germans I could mention, like Carl Ludvig Engel, the architect who rebuilt the centre of Helsinki, or Fredrik Pacius, the composer of the national anthem. But the ones I am thinking of are Martin Luther, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx.
Without Luther, the translation of the Bible into Swedish and Finnish, and the urge to teach people how to read at least part of the text, would not have happened so soon. Luther emphasized the positive aspects of life and regarded work as a calling, not a means to enrich oneself. Everyone should contribute as a member of the family and society. Lutherans stretch and fold their sheets in a particular way, and that is the way we do it in Finland.
The philosopher and statesman J.V. Snellman (1806–1881), one of the most important promoters of Finnish nationalism, was an ardent Hegelian, writing his dissertation in defence of Hegel. In his most influential treatise, Läran om staten (The Theory of the State), he elaborated the process of building a national spirit, culture and formation (in Swedish bildning). Following Hegel, Snellman stressed that freedom for all was only possible through the state. He saw the presence of God only in people who went beyond their limits to serve the good of the nation.
In 1863 Snellman was called to a cabinet post in the Senate, in effect as minister of finance and prime minister. He managed to get the Russian Tsar, who ruled as Grand Duke of Finland, to proclaim a language decree that would gradually give Finnish a position equal to that of Swedish. A separate Finnish currency was introduced, and Snellman managed to tie it to silver instead of the Russian ruble. Without Snellman’s Hegelian vision and verve, the unity of the nation would not have been strong enough to withstand the threat of Russification that took off at the end of the century.
The influence of the third German, Karl Marx, can be seen in the adoption of Marxism by Finland’s Social Democratic Party in its program of 1903. At the beginning of World War I, party membership was more then 100,000, which made it the largest social democratic party per capita in the world. In the 1916 election it won a majority in the Finnish parliament, the lantdag, and Oskari Tokoi became the world’s first social democratic prime minister. A Finnish translation of Das Kapital was commissioned and paid for by the state. After the February 1917 revolution in Russia, Tokoi’s senate decided to transfer the powers the tsar had exercised as Grand Duke of Finland to the lantdag. The head of the Russian Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, dissolved the parliament and ordered new elections, which the bourgeois parties won.
Together with the Agrarian Party (the Centre Party today), founded by the republican democrat Santeri Alkio, the Social Democratic Party managed to save Finland from a fascist takeover in the 1930s. Finland was the only continental country that participated in the war and yet retained its democratic order throughout the ordeal. The development of a welfare state began in the 1930s and accelerated after 1966 when the left obtained a majority in the parliament.
In my 2009 Inroads article, I cited Boris Kagarlitsky, who saw the “California model” as a gigantic supermarket, but the Finnish model as a vast library: “In the former case everything is about the purchase of goods; in the latter, about access to knowledge, information and socially necessary services.” I am now prepared to assert that the country that comes closest to Marx’s communist principle – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” – is Finland.
Having written that, I must add the obligatory remark that the Finnish language has no gender. Both “he” and “she” are hän; “his” and “hers” are hänen. The five parties that make up the present Finnish government, representing all historical shades of the republican, liberal, radical and green left, are all led by women. Of the three parties in opposition only one, the conservative National Coalition Party, is (still) led by a male.
On Russia’s border: Finland Between East and West
Finland’s geographical location close to the area where St. Petersburg is situated has been a determining factor in its history. All of the country’s wars have been related to its proximity to that metropolis (known as Petrograd between 1914 and 1924 and Leningrad between 1924 and 1991), whose population exceeds that of Finland.
The area where the city now stands was originally populated by Finnish-speaking peoples. It was conquered by Sweden – of which Finland was a part from the 12th to the 19th century – from the Novgorod Republic, a medieval state that occupied much of what is now northern Russia, in several wars that ended with a peace treaty in 1323.
After the Great Nordic War (1700–21), Russian Tsar Peter the Great conquered the area and founded St. Petersburg. Sweden tried twice (1741–43 and 1788) to regain lost territories but failed. In 1808–09, another war was instigated by Napoleon, who solicited Tsar Alexander I to force Sweden to join the continental blockade against Britain. Finland was occupied by Russia and Alexander, with the consent of the four Finnish estates (nobility, clergy, burghers, farmers), became Grand Duke of Finland.
The Grand Duke was supposed to have the same position as the Swedish king had had earlier in relation to the four estates. Alexander promised to keep the old Swedish laws and the Lutheran religion. The Finnish territories that Sweden had lost after the two failed wars were reunited with Finland, with the result that the Russian-Finnish border was only 25 kilometres from St. Petersburg. Finland’s autonomy was gradually extended and efforts to Russify Finland started only at the end of the 19th century.
In the Crimean war (1853–56) Britain and France tried to attack St. Petersburg through Finland. They destroyed the fortress Russia had recently built on the Åland Islands off Finland’s southwest coast. Finns in general sought to repel the foreign fleets. They also did not support the Polish uprising in 1863–65, and the Tsar rewarded them with still greater autonomy, notably a national currency.
In 1906 the estates were replaced by a parliament, the landtag. The right to vote and run for office was extended to all citizens – including women.
Finland became seriously involved in World War I only after the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. Oskari Tokoi, who was appointed leader of the senate (prime minister) after the Social Democrats won the 1916 lantdag election, tried to transfer the powers of the Tsar to the lantdag, but the head of the Russian Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, dissolved the parliament and ordered new elections, which the bourgeois parties won. After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, Finland declared independence, which the Bolsheviks accepted on New Year’s Eve.
A civil war between Finnish Reds and Whites broke out in January 1918 and lasted until May. Germany’s intervention on the side of the Whites decided the outcome. Large formations of the Reds fled to Russia, and White troops intervened in the Russian civil war. A peace agreement was reached in 1920, and Finland received Petsamo in the north, containing the largest nickel deposits in Europe.
After Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, the Soviet Union demanded that the border area on the Karelian isthmus close to Leningrad become part of the Soviet Union. The Winter War started in November 1939 and ended in March 1940. Karelia was ceded, and 400,000 of its people were resettled in other parts of Finland. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Finland joined on the German side. After heavy losses in 1944 it had to accept a burdensome peace, which avoided occupation but included a third war, now against German troops in Lapland.
During the Cold War Finland maintained a balance between East and West. It was a member of the Nordic community, and it signed a friendship and cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union. It participated in the European Free Trade Association from the start in 1960, but became a full member only in 1985. Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in 1995. Gradually the cooperation with NATO countries has deepened, and the two countries nowadays participate in most NATO meetings. With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, attitudes toward becoming full members of NATO have changed dramatically, and both countries have now applied for full membership.
¹ John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Lara B. Aknin and Shun Wang, eds., World Happiness Report 2022 (New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2022).
² Aleksi Teivainen, Finland Retains Top Spot in Global Happiness Report, Good News from Finland, March 18, 2022.