International surveys regularly suggest Finland is one of the best countries to live in, but does that mean we are happy?

SOMETIMES it seems that the only ones who ever say anything bad about Finland are the Finns themselves. After years of sharing honours with our Nordic neighbours, Newsweek’s recent investigation into the world’s best countries concluded that Finland is number one. The American magazine posed the question: “If you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life?” Using criteria such as inequality, poverty, environmental factors, and productive growth, it was deduced that Suomi is as close to the Promised Land as you can currently get.

The aforementioned categories were further broken down into contributory factors such as social, economic and gender inequality, standard of living, physical security, environmental impact and so on. The health of the nation was this country’s weakest point, where Finland ranked only 17th out of the 100 “best” nations in the category measuring the overall efficacy of health systems. However, rankings of 4th for quality of life, 8th for economic dynamism, 5th for political environment and the top spot for education – no surprise there – meant that an overall score of 89.31 out of 100 was enough to claim pole position, despite an attempt by a Finnish tabloid to prove that Switzerland should actually have won.

Top o’ the world?

Not only are we the best country in the world, then, but Finland also ranked fifth in Europe in a study commissioned by the Child Poverty Action Group. Furthermore, according to various other studies, Helsinki is the most eco-friendly city in the world (Mercer), we have by far the most effective education system anywhere (PISA rankings), are the 6th least corrupt nation (Transparency International), and, to put it bluntly, we are in general the best place on Earth (Legatum Institute). All of this is enough to make one feel rather flattered – or embarrassed – by the endless praise heading our way.

Of course, there are certain things that Newsweek neglected to consider in its research. Despite Finland’s high rankings in international surveys, the climate, remote location and tricky language don’t necessarily make this country a prime target for relocation. There is a serious North-South divide, with small towns in the North and East of the country losing inhabitants and money to the richer Southern and Western areas where unemployment is lower. As is the case in many or perhaps most countries, there is a gap between those who could be termed the “haves” and “have-nots”. Though thanks to generally efficient social services that gap remains at a relatively low level here.

“Despite certain objective indicators
suggesting that the
country’s populace should be rather
satisfied with their lot, the question
remains: how happy are we?”

Life defining happiness

But despite certain objective indicators suggesting that the country’s populace should be rather satisfied with their lot, the question remains: how happy are we? The answer to this question depends in a large part on how we define happiness.

“Questions of welfare and happiness are both important, the question is how they are related,” suggests Teemu Toppinen, researcher at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. “By ‘happiness’ people sometimes mean a relatively transient state of enjoyment. Sometimes, however, they mean something seemingly quite different, that is: the good life. In other words the quality of life being valuable for the person who is leading it, which is different from it being morally virtuous.”

Of course, a “good life” for one may be nothing of the sort for another. “Some believe that the good life is just the enjoyable life,” Toppinen continues. “But more often philosophers suggest – plausibly, to my mind – that the good life is to be rather understood in terms of satisfaction of our informed desires or goals, or in terms of an objective list of features that make lives good for us. Such features might include our being autonomous, or having friends, for instance.”

Most research tends to use well-established indices of development, which may not accurately reflect people’s actual lives. Calculations using Gross Domestic Product and the Human Development Index (which uses per-capita GDP, life expectancy and education as criteria) have been criticised for not taking sustainability into account. GDP in particular can be seen as inappropriate if we consider that the main aim of most people is not simply to be rich, but to be healthy and happy. Indeed, if we take away such economic factors then Finland doesn’t fare so well.

Subjective problems

The problem of subjectivity is one that plagues all attempts to identify levels of happiness in a society, although that doesn’t mean that researchers have given up. A study this year by Forbes magazine concluded that – surprise – the Nordic countries are the happiest, along with the Netherlands. This piece of research involved asking lots of people to rate on a scale of 1-10 the overall satisfaction with their lives, and questions about how they felt the previous day. You might ask: “What happens if they just had a bad day yesterday?” Apparently 75 per cent of Finns are “thriving”, 23 per cent “struggling” and 2 per cent “suffering”. Exactly what this means is hard to quantify. A critic might argue that there are many more shades of grey between the three categories.

Toppinen agrees in part with this criticism. “These happiness studies are intriguing, and so is their methodology,” he states. “One might worry that they measure something like enjoyment, at best, and might not get at the heart of the matter – what is good for us or what the good life is. I’ve heard of studies that suggest that the parents of small children tend to be rather unhappy. As a parent of an 18-month-old, I can say that on many mornings my ‘How great did I feel yesterday?’ rating might have been quite low, perhaps thanks to being so tired. Still, I’d say that my child makes a central contribution to making my life better. Admittedly I would have responded that I’m satisfied with my life overall, though.”

The reason that Finland came second on the Forbes list and lower on lists that don’t take into account financial factors is in a large part economical. All the top five countries on the former listing have high GDPs. However, this doesn’t entirely account for these countries’ success, even though the research did find some connection. The USA only came 14th in Forbes’ survey, and economic powerhouse China was 125th. “One theory why the Scandinavian countries do really well is that they have their basic needs taken care of to a higher degree than other countries,” suggests Jim Harter, a chief scientist at poll developers Gallup, who conducted the survey on behalf of the magazine. “When we look at all the data, those basic needs explain the relationship between income and well-being.”

Lack of focus on the individual

However, while these pieces of research tend to provide an overview of a nation’s prosperity and wealth as they appear on paper, what they conspicuously lack is a focus on the individual. The education system here may be superb in some respects, but passing exams doesn’t mean the pupil is satisfied with their education.

Likewise, while the unemployed are cared for – and it’s virtually unknown for there to be people sleeping on the streets (drunks excepted) – bare economic criteria do not reflect the contentment felt by the public. Prospects of starvation for the long-term jobless are non-existent, but it is unlikely there are many who are gratified by their predicament.

The Finnish National Public Health Institute (THL) estimates that at any time between 200,000 and 240,000 people in Finland are suffering from depression. Annually 700-750 people commit suicide as a result of their affliction, as the risk of self-harm is significantly increased when a patient is undergoing a severe depression period.

The dark side

Standards such as Newsweek’s economic dynamism may be of interest to economists but are largely irrelevant, it may be argued, to the man or woman on the street. So is it at all possible to measure happiness? One method of determining, at least approximately, how happy people are in a given country is through a comparison of suicide statistics.

Finland has long been stereotyped – not entirely unjustifiably – as a country where the dark winters and potent alcohol create a suicide mentality in the populace. Recent statistics, however, have indicated that cases of people taking their own lives have fallen quite dramatically over the past few years. On the other hand, if we consider only countries in Western Europe then Finland does indeed remain at the top of the rankings in overall rates.

Suicide, of course, lies at the extreme end of the disorder and depression scale. As we are all too aware, judging how happy or satisfied people are and attempting to intervene in cases where an individual might try to harm themselves or others is a difficult prospect.

On the less extreme side of things, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one prevalent condition in the North. In itself SAD is often manifested in relatively minor forms of depression. It is considered as a specifier of major depression in that many who suffer from SAD do so as part of more comprehensive issues such as Bipolar Disorder.

“SAD is one thing that makes Finland a bit different from other European countries,” says Professor Erkki Isometsä of the University of Helsinki’s Department of Psychiatry. “Although here we are not really talking about clinical depression per se but rather symptoms such as tiredness and feeling mildly unhappy. It is hard to talk about happiness and depression together, as happiness affects everyone, but only about five per cent of people throughout Western Europe suffer from clinically significant depression.”

One other aspect of Finnish life and death often mentioned is the high number of alcohol-related deaths, a figure that has risen considerably in recent years. It is doubtful that the Finnish tendency to binge drink is an indicator of a positive mentality, no matter what the GDP figures indicate. THL suggest that only 20 per cent of people suffering from depression experience pure depressive disorders – the majority suffer from depression in conjunction with alcohol or other substance abuse.

Joy not for sale

Perhaps you can’t buy happiness, then. Costa Rica popped up in sixth place in the Forbes poll due to tight social networks in that country that allow individuals to feel contented despite a lack of economic prosperity. In fact, the Happy Planet Index (HPI), created by the independent British think-tank the New Economics Foundation (which ranks countries on their population’s subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth and ecological footprint per capita) in 2009 also placed Costa Rica at number one – with Finland in lowly 59th position.

Essentially combining the Forbes criterion with two broader standards, the HPI avoids a reliance on declared satisfaction, leading to surprising results: with the exception of Vietnam the top 12 countries are all located in the Americas yet don’t include the USA or Canada. Colombia – possibly known more for the drug trade than anything else – is placed sixth.

Although, according to the HPI researchers, the index specifically does not measure happiness, it is based on the principle that most people want to live long and fulfilling lives, and the country that is doing the best is the one that allows its citizens to do so. Admittedly this index has come under criticism for not including political freedom and human rights amongst its criteria, and for the fact that life satisfaction is naturally a very subjective term.

Yet more research, this time from the insurance company Tryg, seems to bear this out. Although, they say, Finns at least feel safe in their own homes and are as happy as the Danes, less than one fifth of Finnish respondents actually considered Finland to be a happy nation. Having said that, perhaps the economic factor shouldn’t be overlooked, as 60 per cent of Finns said they consider “more money” to be essential to happiness.

What’s not to like?

Ultimately we can agree that happiness is hard to pin down – otherwise, presumably, we’d all be a lot happier. Research and polls which purport to rank countries according to subjective criteria must be taken with a pinch of salt. Of course the biased amongst us would perhaps rather ignore the HPI in favour of something like the Mercer survey, which ranks Helsinki as one of the most eco-friendly cities in the world, with the fourth-best personal safety record and 35th highest quality of life in the top 100 cities dominated by Western conurbations.

Finnish metropolises are normally seen as flourishing, European cultural hubs by the Finnish tourist board, if no one else. As well as Helsinki’s high placing in the Mercer rankings (they obviously didn’t visit Kontula), Turku shares with Tallinn next year’s title of European Capital of Culture. Meanwhile, Tampere’s museums have won European Museum of the Year awards, film festivals are ubiquitous around the country, we have seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites (although two of them are geographical features shared with other countries) and we invented the Moomins – so what’s to be unhappy about?

On the other hand, even having the “best” education system in the world doesn’t mean that the result will be an adult population overjoyed with their lot in life, so one could simply aim to find a place where one can happily and peacefully live on an individual level and one’s individual rights are protected. Even in a society such as Finland, a feeling of personal satisfaction and contentment is not a given. “After all, while on average, or according to certain criteria, people’s experiences are similar in a given country, there are of course variations,” says Professor Isometsä. “Finland is not the same for every Finn.”

Nick Barlow