“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.” Zhuangzi

It is official, Finland is the world’s happiest country and has been for four consecutive years.  This is according to the World Happiness Report[i] published on March 20, in observance of the UN International Day of Happiness.  The report examines data from 149 countries, looking at economic data such as GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy but also survey responses from Gallup polls – looking at three criteria: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions. 

Given the year we have just encountered it would be expected to see quite a significant reduction in our levels of happiness, yet that was not the case.  Globally, there was no overall change in the positive emotions, but there was a 10% increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the previous day.  There seems to be an interplay between our long-term view characterised by resilience, countered – in the short-term – by an increase in anxiety. 

It is fascinating to consider what drives the happiness scores.  We so often associate increased happiness because of gaining something – winning the lottery or buying the latest gadget.  Whilst there may be fleeting feeling of happiness associated with this, this study would suggest that does not determine our satisfaction in life.  Instead, ‘trust and the ability to count on others’ are more important to happiness.  This applies at both a local and national level: we want to see trust in those around us as well as in those running the country.  This is why happiness levels are highest in social democracies of Northern Europe.  The top 10 countries are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Austria. According to one of the study’s authors, Jeffrey Sachs, “People feel secure in those countries, so trust is high. The government is seen to be credible and honest, and trust in each other is high.”[ii]  It is perhaps worrying then that the UK’s ranking fell by 5 slots to 18th, as our happiness score fell to 6.8 versus 7.2 in the 2017-19 period.

So, I guess the obvious question is what is it that makes Finland the happiest country?  A scroll through the various responses to the question on google shows a high level of consistency, perhaps best reflected by Heikki Väänänen[iii]  “Finland has extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, a well-functioning democracy, and an instilled sense of freedom and independence.”  He also references the culture of the people as ‘Sisu’, translating to stoic perseverance or maybe better reflected in the Finnish saying ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’

If we are to learn the lessons of Finland, we need to look beyond materiality to achieve happiness, as summed up by Sachs, “the [report] reminds us that we must aim for wellbeing rather than mere wealth, which will be fleeting indeed if we don’t do a much better job of addressing the challenges of sustainable development.”

[i] https://happiness-report.s3.amazonaws.com/2021/WHR+21.pdf

[ii] https://apnews.com/article/2021-world-happiness-report-covid-resilience-79b5b8d1a2367e69df05ae68b58aa435

[iii] https://www.happy-or-not.com/en/2020/06/forbes-why-finland-is-the-happiest-country-in-the-world/

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