Home » Expat Focus Wellbeing Update April 2023

Expat Focus Wellbeing Update April 2023

The Secret to a Happy Country

What is the secret to happiness? This is a big question – one that has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for centuries. In Buddhism, happiness is gained through the perception of the true nature of reality, regardless of the mental and emotional constructs that we impose upon it. To the Greek philosopher Socrates, in 450 BC, the secret to happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. Socrates might have been onto something, according to a recent survey designed to find the happiest country in the world.

The results may surprise you. Rather than, say, Italy, with its beautiful climate and world-famous food, or the USA, with its go-getting can-do positivity, or even Bhutan with its government policy of Gross National Happiness, the winner is … Finland.

Finland – the Happiest Nation

Why Finland – a country which remains in darkness for many months of the year? How does it qualify as the happiest nation on Earth? Let’s take a look at happiness and why Socrates might have been right when we take the psychology of the Finns into consideration.

On March 20th 2023, the World Happiness Report published its latest edition, a decade after the First International Day of Happiness, focusing on six metrics for happiness:

  • Social support
  • Income
  • Health
  • Freedom
  • Generosity
  • Absence of corruption

Quoting the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, it notes:

“The ultimate goal of politics and ethics should be human well-being. The happiness movement shows that well-being is not a ‘soft’ and ‘vague’ idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues, and good citizenship. We need to turn this wisdom into practical results to achieve more peace, prosperity, trust, civility – and yes, happiness – in our societies.”

Sachs runs the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which produces the World Happiness Report and also the Global Happiness Policy Report. We should note that funding from the UAE for the network has been controversial, with critics focusing on the country’s human rights record. To many, Sachs is a divisive figure, and we need to bear this in mind when considering the Happiness Report, whilst still acknowledging its findings.


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How Happiness is Measured

The report’s positive take on Finland, however, may be considered to be less contentious, as well as its top ten countries, which appear as follows:

  • Finland
  • Denmark
  • Iceland
  • Israel
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • Luxembourg
  • New Zealand

The survey itself is represented by a ladder with steps from zero to 10. At the top, 10, is the best possible life for respondents, with the worst possible life at zero, at the bottom.

The heavy weighting of Scandinavian countries in these sorts of lists is generally considered to be unsurprising, given their progressive social policies and emphasis on quality of life (Denmark’s internationally famous cultural metric of cosy hygge is an example).

Perhaps more surprising has been the impact of Covid, often rightly seen as a major disruptor in social settings, but which, the report’s John Helliwell notes, has perhaps been less important than some current perspectives hold:

“Average happiness and our country rankings, for emotions as well as life evaluations, have been remarkably stable during the three Covid-19 years. Changes in rankings that have taken place have been continuations of longer-term trends, such as the increases seen in the rankings of the three Baltic countries. Even during these difficult years, positive emotions have remained twice as prevalent as negative ones, and feelings of positive social support twice as strong as those of loneliness.”

His comments may be linked to recent findings that young people on TikTok have been looking back with nostalgia to lockdown. The report further suggests that social factors, such as volunteering, acts of kindness, and donating to charity currently fall above pre-pandemic levels and contribute to feelings of well-being.

The Finnish Mindset

Many Finns seem pleased with the outcome of the report, to such an extent that a ‘happiness masterclass’ is now being offered in the country. When sampled by a Guardian journalist recently, this turned out to be four days in a forest hotel experiencing local cuisine and a sauna. The newspaper also pointed out that Finland has a high standard of public healthcare and education, decent parental leave, beautiful scenery, and a low crime rate, which might have something to do with their happiness (certainly this fits in with the report’s criteria above). When Finland started storming up the Happiness Report charts some years ago, the media also focused on its practice of kalsarikännit (getting drunk in your underpants, which might suit some, but possibly not all of us).

The Finns themselves appear sceptical about their ranking. Slate magazine reported in 2021 that when a Finnish cabinet minister was introduced at an international political gathering as a member of the happiest country on Earth, he is reported to have replied that he would ‘hate to see the other nations’. Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan appeared at the bottom of this year’s list. The UK and USA are 19th and 15th respectively.

Some commentators have cited the ‘Law of Jante’ as underlying the Scandinavian and Finnish mindset. Derived from the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose’s satirical 1930s novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, the ‘law’ basically can be summed up as: “You are not to think you’re anyone special, or that you’re better than us.” Finnish academic Jukka Savolainen, Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, suggests that perhaps lagom, a concept sometimes defined as “just the right amount,” might be the underlying cause of Finnish contentment: “A cultural orientation that sets realistic limits to one’s expectations for a good life.”

What this discussion brings to the fore is that happiness can be culturally determined, but it is also a personal matter. It might be worth thinking about what constitutes happiness for you – wealth, security, stability, family life, or a delight in small things, perhaps? Or was Socrates right in thinking that developing your ability to enjoy less is the key to happiness?


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