For the fourth consecutive year, Finland has been named the world’s happiest country by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2016-2020). Many of us may be left wondering how anyone could come to such a conclusion, as the concept of happiness can be very subjective. The very basic questions of “what does it mean to be happy?” and “what brings people happiness?” can both be greeted with a wide variety of responses based on individual values.
So how did the network come to this conclusion and what validity does this assertion have? What about Finland has stood out for the past four years?
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) releases annual World Happiness Reports based on a wide variety of data which mostly relies on a series of surveys. Experts in many different fields have come together to produce these research findings.
The happiness of each country’s inhabitants is evaluated based on the following six categories: gross domestic product per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption levels. These six categories are what the creators of this report believe differentiate one country from another.
The World Happiness Report’s most important source of information has been the Gallup World Poll. The Gallup organization conducts polls from the largest possible pool of participants to be included in the report, and has succeeded in doing so even in the face of challenges brought on by COVID-19. These polls have allowed data to be considered from over 350,000 interviewees and from 95 different countries.
With the understanding that happiness is subjective, the polls urge participants to rank their own happiness on a 10-point scale. Interviewees are also asked a series of questions that urge them to make life evaluations and reflect on their levels of positive and negative emotion. Some of these questions were related to how often the participants smile or laugh, how often they feel they learn new things or do something that sparks their interest, how often they are treated with respect, or how much they trust the people around them.
While Finland is nowhere near perfect with an 8.1% unemployment rate and far-right nationalism on the rise, it is clear that the Finns are doing something right. For starters, the country’s public schooling is considered to be among the best in the world. Their schooling is nationally funded; all schools have the same standards and curriculum, and their system rarely relies on testing to evaluate student success. Additionally, they have an effective, universal health care system; child care is affordable, and college is free. Out of all the European countries, Finland has been affected least by the pandemic, which is believed to be because Finns trust their government and comply with restrictions.
One surprising aspect of this research was that high-income levels and happiness levels often did not correlate. Psychology tells us that social comparison and relative deprivation play a role in the relationship between income and happiness. When we compare ourselves with those around us and see that others are more well-off than we are, it triggers feelings of deprivation, frustration, and jealousy. These emotions could easily get in the way of achieving a state of happiness.
Finns have been characterized as having realistic life-expectations and keeping their general happiness private. Additionally, the country does not have great income and wealth disparity and overall lacks diversity. The United States, which was ranked #14 behind Ireland, differs from Finland in these ways.
America is a diverse nation; its inhabitants come from all different backgrounds, receive different educations, and hold widely different socio-economic statuses. Additionally, the American capitalist system breeds a competitive environment and mentality. These causes of relative deprivation can help explain lower happiness levels.
Americans also display a level of distrust in their government, law enforcement, and media. The political climate is quite polarized, and people are bombarded by false media portrayals on a daily basis.
Beyond this political turmoil, there are cultural aspects that set the US apart. Its individualistic culture urges people to overshare details of their lives and create digital personas for others to pick apart and compare. The reality TV stars and social media influencers that are idolized in American culture may reinforce unrealistic life expectations. All these factors point to ways America and Finland differ.
At the very core of the American dream is the notion that hard work and abundant opportunity will allow Americans to fulfill their aspiration of a better life. Perhaps this betterment can be assisted through a close look at Finland—a country that seems to be successful in creating an environment that maximizes the well-being of its inhabitants.