What Can America Learn from the Happiest Country on Earth, Finland?

  • 5 min read

Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

Finland’s been named ‘the happiest country in the world’ for three straight years now. That’s one hell of a hat-trick.

It hardly seems like a likely candidate, does it? Being so cold and grey for a lot of the year. But those northern European countries — including Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden — always top the UN’s list of happiest nations

The UN Happiness Index is based on a combination of factors: healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, gross domestic product (GDP), generosity, social support from friends, and perceived corruption.

So for Finland to continually top the list, they must be doing a lot of things right. Let’s have a look at how the Finns have managed to lead such happy lives. What can we, as Americans, learn from them? 

Money doesn’t buy happiness — just ask the Finns

Nearly half of all Finns make regular donations to charities. Why? “Compassion” is their primary driver. And they don’t just give their money either — in the same study, almost a third of Finland’s residents had spent time volunteering for a charity in the previous month.

These regular acts of selflessness make a big difference.There’s an undeniable link between giving and being happy: one 2008 study found that participants who gave their money to someone else experienced elevated happiness levels versus participants who spent their money on themselves. Altruistic behavior also releases endorphins in the brain, leading to higher levels of satisfaction and contentment.

Plus, giving invokes gratitude. And we already know how great gratitude is for boosting your own personal happiness!

When we work together, great things can happen

In a perfect world, every government would do right by its citizens. And all citizens would feel supported by the powers that be. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case — and it certainly doesn’t feel that way here on home soil. But Finland has come pretty close. 

Finland is constantly praised for its high standard of living. Finns have access to generous welfare benefits, long maternity and paternity leave, progressive taxation and wealth distribution, and universal healthcare. Also a staggering 80% of the population trust the police force, which is honestly impossible to imagine here in the US.

This mutual respect and consideration sends positive ripples through society. Gender equality is firmly on the agenda and, in fact, Finland is the only country in the developed world where fathers spend more time with school-aged children than their mothers.

What can we Americans take from this? We have to exercise our right to vote at every level: national, state, and local. Healing the wounds of the last four years in US politics will be like turning a tanker. But every positive step in the right direction takes us nearer to Finland, and further away from where we are today. 

If you ask the Finns, equality means everything

For years, Finland has focused on reducing financial inequality within its population. They’ve got amazing welfare assistance and the government is known for supporting impoverished members of society.

The message? “We’re all in this together”. Finns are encouraged to care about and help out their neighbors in need. They have an intrinsic bond that’s totally different from the American way of thinking about, and acting toward, our fellow people.Finns share a mindset that one can only be free and independent if everyone is equally free and independent, which influences how citizens and the government acts to move the country forward. 

Keith Payne, the researcher and writer behind ‘The Broken Ladder’ says that “the presence of extreme inequality destabilizes a society in ways that are hard to understand but absolutely devastating.” Payne explains that widespread inequality leads to serious health problems (including drug and alcohol misuse), chronic disease, and shorter life expectancy. And that inequality doesn’t just come down to who is rich and who is poor, but in our perceptions of our own relative health, wealth and happiness compared to someone else.

Living in a community where everyone — across the whole spectrum of social and economic capital — feels seen and valued is certainly one of the contributing factors to Finland’s unshakeable happiness levels.

I know what you’re thinking. Won’t all of this government intervention make us less free and less prosperous? Not according to the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. Why? The financial security created by these programs give people like you and me more control over our lives. This creates more space for well regulated free markets to operate effectively. So, we get more freedom for individuals AND for businesses in the Finnish system than we do here in the US. 

Rye bread, herring, and happiness for everyone — even us Americans

So how can we make America more like Finland?

Obviously it’s not as easy as waking up in the morning and saying: “Okay, let’s all be happy now.” 

Finns live their lives by a philosophy called “sisu”. It’s hard to directly translate into English, but it’s something like“strength of will” or “stoic perseverance”. Everything they do is underpinned by this desire to move forward in life — even if the odds seem stacked against them.

This is something we can surely apply to our everyday lives here in America. 2020’s dealt us a rough set of cards. But how we respond is up to us.

We can make a point of being more compassionate to others, whether they’re friends or strangers. If we have the means, we can be more charitable with our money and with our time. We can fight for equality in our community, and most importantly of all we can — and must — make our voices heard in every election and every day in between.

So, what can you do today to help make your life and our country happier? There is only one political party in this country that is willing to take action to protect ourunalienable right to pursue happiness as our founders intended, the Democratic Party. While they are far, far from perfect and we must hold them accountable, Democrats institute policies that make us happier when they have the power to do so. Republicans do the opposite. 

Look, I know we just won. We forced a wannabe autocrat out of the highest office in the land whether or not he wants to leave. We all want to go back to our lives. We want to live in peace. Unfortunately, our work is not done. In January, two runoff elections will determine which party controls the US Senate. If we want the next administration to take action to make the United States a happier place, the Democratic candidates must win both. 

If you live in Georgia, the best thing you can do to help make that happen is to vote and to convince all of your friends to turn out to vote. This kind of peer pressure is highly effective, especially if you make a specific plan to vote and you remind your friends to do so. 

For the rest of us? One of the most effective things you can do is to write letters to strangers to convince them to vote for Democrats in Georgia. That sounds weird, but it works. Vote Forward, a nonprofit with a mission to empower grassroots volunteers to help register voters from under-represented demographics and encourage them to vote, makes it easy. You can sign up here to start making a difference today. Together, we can make America the happiest place on earth. Let’s build a brighter future, together. 

The Good Life Journal is a part of our contribution towards making America a happier place to be. Read, reflect, subscribe and share. As the Finns have shown us, we’re all in this together.

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