The thing about Finns, in my experience, is that they are one of the most reserved people on the planet. Glaring signs of joy are not in their playbook. I remember silent breakfasts with my first foster dad, watching him stare out the window, barely acknowledging my presence. He wasn’t rude. He was Finnish. Class management was not an issue in my high school, Imatran Yhteislukio, That is. Behavior is not a problem when no one is talking. Even when I joined a school friend for aerobics classes at the local gym, the vibe was more quiet disco than fitness frenzy. Was this discreet melancholic atmosphere a joy? Are Americans – who came in at 16th in the World Happiness Report – got it all wrong about happiness?
I decided to contact my Finnish friends to find out: Is the World Happiness Report fair? Are Finns really that happy?
“We have a saying in Finland: ‘If you’re happy, you should hide it’,” says Veera Lavikkala, a consultant at a software company in Kirkkonummi, west of Helsinki. The 37-year-old mother of two says that in Finland, bragging about your good fortune is considered dishonest.
“The Finns have a subdued happiness”, agrees Katja Pantzar, specialist in the subject and author of “Everyday Sisu: tapping into Finnish courage for a happier, more resilient life.” Pantzar was born in Finland before her family moved to Australia and finally to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she grew up. When an opportunity to work for Finnair’s in-flight magazine presented itself 20 years ago, she returned to her native country and never looked back. In fact, she’s so enthused about the Finnish way of life — including her frequent sauna trips and bike-friendly town planning — that she’s written two books on the subject. And she has a special insight into the Finnish psyche. “They may be totally satisfied, but they don’t have the same body language, like smiling,” she says. But don’t let the impassive faces of the Finns fool you. If the World Happiness Report is to be believed, Finns mask a deep contentment based on the appreciation of a society that puts the public good first.
“Everyone has access to the basics,” says Liisi Hatinen, communications coordinator in Espoo, a town outside Helsinki, and mother of two. She talks about guaranteed health care, tuition-free schools, a living wage and affordable housing. “These programs are well thought out and work, so that’s the basis of your happiness.”
Where people in other nations, including our own, measure success in terms of material wealth – the right car, the biggest house, the best job, the best neighborhood – Finns find satisfaction elsewhere. This was never more evident to me than on Christmas Eve 2001. As is the custom in Finland, that night Santa Claus came to my host family to greet my host brother from 4 years old Otto. We ate a good meal, exchanged small gifts and went to bed. I then closed my bedroom door and quietly opened a huge box overflowing with presents my parents had sent me. I tore the paper as delicately as possible so as not to alert my hosts; the display of American excess was far too embarrassing. But to my surprise, when my host sisters found my vacation loot the next day, they just said, “Oh, that’s fine,” with no jealousy between them. The joy of sharing the vacation with their family seemed reward enough. Who needed more stuff?
“We want to accomplish things in our lives,” says Johanna Ovaska, director of Imatra middle school and mother of two. “But it’s not like ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’”
Essi Ala-Kokko, a 46-year-old photographer who grew up in Kauhajoki and moved to Chicago for art school, fell in love and stayed, puts it this way: “I’ve come to the conclusion that this must be that we are satisfied with very little. We don’t need to have extremely successful careers. We don’t need to have a ton of money. We like the simple things in life, like our walks in the woods and hanging out with friends.
Enjoying downtime is easy thanks to Finland’s work-life balance. “We have five weeks of vacation,” says Jukka Multisilta, a strategy consultant in Helsinki. This contrasts with the 10-day average paid vacation for Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Multisilta recently joined a friend on a 10-day motorcycle trip from Helsinki to Nordkapp, the northernmost tip of Norway. Along the way, he and his friend got free access open huts in the middle of nature maintained by the Finnish national park system, a benefit that makes outdoor adventure more affordable. The trip was amazing, he says. “The light is so crazy when you go up north, so it all looks magical.”
Of course, Finns don’t need to drive at all to get into nature. Green spaces are everywhere in the country of more than 5 million inhabitants. “I have four winter pools within two kilometers of my house,” says Pantzar. But let’s be realistic: even if we believe that diving into the ice is physically and mentally beneficial, I find it hard to believe that Finns are polar bears swimming towards happiness.
And a walk in the woods isn’t the answer either, although I’m sure it’s great for mindfulness. A tuition-free education, though? It will improve your mood. Sure, Finns pay more tax for the privilege, but my friends tell me that not sweating the college expense was worth it.
Lavikkala and her sister were the first people in her family to go to high school, she says, and they “both went to college. We both have a degree. We did not have to take out student loans. If you have the ability, you can be anything you want in Finland.
I have to laugh. I recently opened a 529 college savings account for my son. He’s 6 years old.
And that’s the thing. There are many stressors that Finns, especially Finnish women, do not have to worry about.
“I really think the position of women is a big thing in our happiness,” Ovaska says. “Have you seen our government? We have a female prime minister. She is  years. Then we have four other senior ministers who are also young women. So it’s a pretty big female power.
Reaching the top rungs of the civil service isn’t such a crazy idea when the government actually supports motherhood. Hatinen is now in the 12th month of her maternity/parental leave. She could take three years in total if she wanted to, but opted for just over a year. “I receive 70% of my salary, and then if I continue to take time off after 10 months, I think it drops to 300 euros [about $330] a month,” she said. As for the daycare, there is also no need to worry about this price. “Finland offers free universal child care from eight months until the start of formal education at age seven,” according to the World Economic Forum. I tell her about my rather luxurious — by American standards — eight-week maternity leave. As soon as it was over, we enrolled my son in a Montessori school. His monthly tuition was the same as our mortgage.
But more importantly, if a woman or her baby becomes ill in Finland, regardless of the prognosis, the treatment will not be as financially devastating as it can be in the United States and elsewhere.
“I plan to announce the birth to my son soon,” says Sirja Lassila, a Swedish teacher and mother of two at Imatra. Three weeks before her due date, she had noticed that her baby had suddenly stopped moving in the womb. Her husband drove her to the nearby hospital, where she underwent an emergency caesarean section. Resuscitated after giving birth, her son still needed intensive care, so he was taken by ambulance 142 miles to Helsinki, to the country’s top children’s hospital. He received excellent care and was able to go home – again by ambulance – a week later.
“It wasn’t totally free,” she says in a corrective email she sent me the day after our interview. I brace myself for the figure, scrolling through the email. According to a Health Care Cost Institute study of over 350,000 commercially insured deliveries in 35 US states between 2016 and 2017, the average expenditure per C-section was $17,004. “We paid a few bills, in total around 200 to 300 euros,” she writes, or around 220 to 330 dollars. How’s that for a happy ending?
Of course, life is not perfect in Finland. Toni Tikkanen, a documentary writer for the Finnish television series “Arman Pohjantahden alla” (“Arman under the North Star”) does not hesitate to tell me that racism, inequalities, violence, depression and suicides are produce there, just like in the rest of the world. . But, he adds, “I think as a nation we’re striving to make a change for the better, and we have a pretty strong support system.” So is Finland the happiest country? Tikkanen says yes.
After talking to these Finns, I also agree. Turns out I had it all wrong about Finnish happiness. Finn’s relaxed face isn’t rude, it’s a look of quiet serenity. And while I would never trade my American passport for anything, for a nation born out of the idea of the pursuit of happiness, we might consider what the Finns can teach us on the subject. While the American philosophy of striving individually towards our personal success is admirable, the Finnish system that ensures no one has to worry about basic needs – well, that sounds like a recipe for happiness to me.
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