An Indian living in Finland on discovering why it's the world's happiest country
It is the culture of trust, openness and collaboration that make Finnish people feel safe and happy.
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My engagement with Finland began purely by chance. I was hunting around for a PhD position and on a friend’s recommendation applied to a small university on the west coast of Finland, known for its business studies programme. The department accepted my PhD proposal and offered me a scholarship. It was unexpected, but Finland also piqued my curiosity, so I landed up in this country in the summer of 2015.
Summer is of special significance in Finland. Due to its short duration it is a time for long vacations and non-stop parties and fun, therefore, it is more likely that when you smile at a Finn during the summer, you will get one back.
When you encounter an average Finnish person, "happy" might not be the first word that pops into your mind, but do not let that first impression fool you. This tiny country of 5.5 million has consistently ranked among the happiest countries in the world along with its Nordic neighbours, and this year it has overtaken Norway to claim the top position in the United Nations’ 2018 World Happiness Report.
The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is seen over the sky near the village of Pallas (Muonio region) of Lapland, Finland, September 8, 2017. (Credit: Reuters photo for representational purpose)
The report bases its results on polls of self-reported wellbeing, as well as perceptions of corruption, generosity and freedom. While these are important indicators no doubt, but I think, it is important to understand some core aspects of Finnish culture that contribute this feeling of wellbeing and happiness.
The Finnish culture has a nuanced relationship to individual happiness and its inherent connection to progress of society as a whole. One of the best ways to be acquainted with this is perhaps, Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics. Moomins were another reason why Finland had appealed to me, and made it easier for me to understand and relate to the Finnish people and their culture.
In a global popular culture that frequently frowns upon imperfections and, in which individual happiness is prized above all else, Jansson’s characters stand out as embodiments of human imperfections that tackle serious and often uncomfortable issues with great wit and wisdom. Far from being preachy, the tales embrace life’s uncertainties, dualities, and darkness in order to amplify the enduring values of love, warmth, and compassion.
In fact, the Moomin books make us acutely aware of our dominant culture where individual happiness and wellbeing is amplified, while consistently underplaying the discomfort, darkness, contradictions, and sacrifices that truly exemplify our lived existences. This disturbing trend in our mainstream culture to focus on the bright, happy, and shiny takes away from the misery, the monotony, cruelty, selfishness, and the hard work that play an equally important role in how we structure our lives, and in doing so takes away some critical learnings.
Learnings that include, how intimately our personal happiness is connected to those around us, how we are all bundles of contradictions and that we all make mistakes but that does not mean you do not get a second chance.
This kind of perspective creates an enabling environment for everyone. It is very normal in Finland, for a child whose father has been to prison to be in the same school or even grade with the child whose father made the arrest. The first time I encountered this, I was surprised, but was reminded by Finnish friends that rehabilitation is cheaper (the Finns pay high taxes) and forgiveness puts moral pressure on people to make amends.
Finns lounge in Helsinki's Esplanade Park. (Credit: Associated Press)
There is almost no resistance to paying high taxes as it ensures a great quality of education along with comfortable social benefits. Tax records and salary details are easily accessible and this level of transparency builds trust. Trust is implicit in the Finnish system and barring a few stray instances, there is little evidence of anyone trying to game the system.
It is important to keep in mind a few things that determine the success of this system. Finland is a small country of 5.5 million people of closely-knit communities of people, with a shared history, language, culture, and race. It is relatively easier to build trust in such largely homogenous communities of people. It would be interesting to see what form the current data would take if the variables became more diverse in terms of history, language, culture, and race.
For instance, the sudden jump in refugee arrivals and immigration has sparked sharp debates within Finnish society that is trying to define what the Finnish way of life ought to be under such unprecedented circumstances.
However, the presence of such spaces for debate and the freedom to conduct them, in itself play a big role in bringing about change through consensus; an important prerequisite for happiness. This is evident in how the Finnish Innovation Agency, Sitra (a body similar to India’s Niti Aayog) is encouraging debate on transition from a centralised decision-making system towards a system where a general shared vision will act as a guide for decentralised experimental activities through a multitude of small-scale experiments.
The idea is to treat these experiments as arenas for learning and use the small continuous improvements to build into major reforms over a period. By facilitating such debates, Sitra is helping various stakeholders (civil society organisations, businesses, research organisations, educational institutions) visualise models that will encourage communal learning and social innovation processes and their roles in such projects.
The education reform that is taking shape is being primed for thinkers who will be able to question the existing system while creating the networks required for transition. The reform itself is being debated as it takes effect.
It is this culture of trust, openness, collaboration that make Finnish people feel safe, and happy. They attach great value to their society and the bonds they share with the members. And if you are still wondering why Finns have few close friends, these lines from Moomin might solve the puzzle for you: "It’s rather difficult, when one has many friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…"