Consistently ranked among the world’s happiest nations, Finns can teach us it is the simplest of things that are at the heart of achieving lasting happiness
"Are you happy?" I looked at my Finnish boss as I threw the question at him two years ago.
"Yes," an unhesitating response came from Jukka Tapio Blom, a fun-loving man with a top-notch sense of humour who loves to watch ice hockey on TV. Karhu III, a full-bodied Finnish lager, is his favourite drink.
"Why?" I wanted to dig deeper.
Again, the bald man's reply was prompt, "I have a family, three healthy kids, a job and nice colleagues who I have good relationships with."
That was it. It was as simple an answer as it could be. He did not express any desire to own a multimillion-euro luxury house like his fellow countryman Kimi Räikkönen, the 2007 Formula One World Champion who has achieved a cult status in F1. He actually lives in a rental apartment in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, which is owned by the city authorities.
Nor did he say he needed millions of euros in his bank account and a Mercedes-Benz to be happy. He drives a Toyota. In 2018, the most common passenger car model in mainland Finland was Toyota Corolla, according to Statistics Finland, the national statistical institution of the country.
Finland, after all, is not a country where people boast about how much money they have in their bank account or blatantly flaunt their wealth. Net worth, salary and religion are among subjects considered very private in this highly individualistic society.
Finnish social scientists Anu Kantola and Hanna Kuusela wrote in their 2019 book Huipputuloiset (The Top Earners) that many of the rich in their country work hard, do not want to display their wealth, and make a point of living like ordinary citizens. Unlike America, this makes complete sense in Finland, a country where equality is revered like a rite, and social as well as corporate hierarchies are very flat. Grand promotions of personal achievements to attract other people's attention is not a Finn's cup of tea.
Jukka's reply to my question may seem trivial but it contains wealth of information about the idea of happiness in Finland, where ensuring the well-being of citizens is one of the key priorities of the government. His ordinary words offer important insights into the pivotal elements that Finns, who outwardly seem to be reticent people, consciously associate with happiness.
Be it Finland, England or Thailand, people everywhere are looking for happiness. It is a state of mind that plays a crucial role in our daily lives and has far-reaching impacts on how we feel about ourselves. Because of its inherent nature, it seems elusive to many.
But not to Finns.
The Nordic country is where the world in the past years has looked at for secret clues to happiness. This is because Finns have been ranked the happiest people on the planet for three years in a row. The 2020 happiness rankings were published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in March, when the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging the world and most people were spending time in home quarantine.
The rankings were based on a wide variety of data measuring perceived happiness of citizens in 156 countries. Among other factors, social freedom, GDP per capita, life expectancy and generosity were considered. Cities were also ranked according to their subjective well-being for the first time.
The happiness report includes a chapter that extensively analysed why Finland and the other Nordic countries are frequently ranked among the happiest nations in the world. Well-functioning democracy, low crime and corruption, high trust between citizens and government, and generous social welfare benefits have been mentioned as the key reasons for the Nordic exceptionalism.
Nonetheless, I believe it is Jukka's "dull" answer that offers some secret knowledge of happiness in Finland. It captures the essence of Finnish happiness without dragging the complex, multifaceted details of the world happiness report into discussion.
The research-based report is certainly a comprehensive work of experts, but Jukka's mundane points hold true too to a great extent. In fact, a recent national happiness survey in Finland has demonstrated that he is not wrong in succinctly summarising the psychology of Finnish happiness that may seem insignificant to the rest of the world.
The survey involving 1,000 Finns aged between 18 and 89 was conducted in the second week of April, and the findings were published on May Day. Commissioned by the country's national broadcaster, Yle, it asked respondents about their future hopes and dreams. It was the continuation of a 2019 survey involving 3,000 Finns over the age of 15.
Health came out as the top answer in the survey. Almost half of the respondents said they want to be healthy.
Finns, indeed, take their health very seriously, but this was not the case back in the 70s. At the time, sedentary lifestyle was viewed as good. People would mostly consume fatty meat and buttered bread, and avoid vegetables. Cardiac diseases reached record levels in the country.
Now, Finns are one of the fittest nations. Physical activity remains a big priority in their lives. Different community-based measures in the 70s that incentivised people to lead a healthy lifestyle mainly led to this transformation. A 2019 survey found that the majority people exercise regularly, with walking and working out in the gym being the most popular physical activities.
Markku Ojanen, Finnish emeritus professor of psychology, has been researching happiness for decades. He said people apparently prioritised health more in the Yle survey because of the ongoing coronavirus situation.
But Finns, the academic noted, had always underscored the importance of health.
Finnish people not only know the adage that health is wealth; they live by it. Remember that Jukka said having three "healthy" kids is an element of his happiness? He himself is also a healthy man, apart from the fact that Finnish men generally have a well-built physique.
When I was working with him, I would frequently consume breads with excessive butter fillings during lunch, and he would always warn me of the potential health consequences.
The second most common response in the survey was to have a good job. Young respondents said they hope for a good place to study and work, while those aged between 30 and 45 mentioned work, career development and having children.
A 21-year-old female respondent said she would be happy to get an interesting place to study and a relatively well-paying job that supports her own interests. Another 36-year-old woman said she wants to do work that can be done responsibly.
This is purely self-explanatory. There is no way unemployment or underemployment can positively contribute to people's happiness, no matter whether they are Finnish or not. Not having a job cannot put a smile on anyone's face.
Jukka, who learned English by paying attention to song lyrics when he was a young man, has worked all his life in the catering industry. He now works for Danish multinational firm ISS as a coordinator at the main restaurant at the headquarters of the Nordea Bank, part of the Nordea Group which is the largest financial services group in northern Europe. The restaurant serves around 1,800-2,000 bank employees every day.
I asked him if he had ever thought about doing something more challenging in life. He said he had deliberately chosen the line of work that was easy to do.
"What I do gives me comfort. I do not solve complex problems at work. Well, I just do not want a job that requires me to do that," he told me.
Like other countries, the Covid-19 pandemic has also taken a heavy toll on the Finnish economy, causing major upheavals in the job market. A labour force survey of Statistics Finland said employment was rising in February before the coronavirus crisis hit the country. In March, hiring came to a halt, and many firms also went for layoffs and furloughs.
Furloughs reached record levels, with over 65,000 full-time workers facing it in March. In April, the number of unemployed jobseekers almost doubled compared to the year before due to layoffs while the number of new vacancies also declined. The government in March announced a 15-billion-euro bailout package to shore up the economy.
Good relationship came up as the third most common response in the survey. It included romantic relationship, friendship and staying in touch with relatives.
This is directly in line with the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Widely known as one of the world's longest-running studies on happiness, it revealed that close relationships, more than money or fame, keep people happy throughout their lives. According to the study, close bonds are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
Even though Finnish culture is very individualistic where people mostly keep to themselves and making friends can be very difficult, friendship is treasured in the society. Instead of building superficial friendships with lots of people, Finns usually have a small circle of friends and nurture that relationship over the years to strengthen the bond. One interesting fact about them is that they officially celebrate friendship on February 14, the Valentine's Day, instead of romantic relationship. The day is called Ystävänpäivä (Friend's Day).
Finns get into and remain in romantic relationships only if they sincerely want to do so, not because they think it is a mandatory duty to have a partner. Marriage is purely based on love, not any societal or religious obligation. Finnish non-governmental organisation Väestöliitto in 2017 said over 90 percent of the country's married couples reported happiness and being in love with their partner.
Love, feelings, relationship, marriage and divorce in the context of Finnish society were among my favourite subjects to discuss with Jukka. He has outstanding abilities to hold thought-provoking discussions on cultural subjects, and frequently uses humour to explain the quirks of Finnishness. I asked him one day how he had met his wife. He said he had a crush on her the first time he saw her.
But a crush is not enough to build a real, sustainable relationship because it mostly excludes rationality. To avoid unnecessary disappointments later, people sometimes need to crush their crush before their crush crushes them. So, I asked him what had happened next.
"One thing led to another. We were in love, a relationship was born, we got married, and are still together after all these years," said Jukka, a true family guy and the citizen of a country where the divorce rate is pretty high.
A high divorce rate, however, only reflects the surface-level picture of a society, with much more weighty things happening underneath. In Finland, no social stigma is attached to divorce. Making divorce easy has made it possible for Finns to effortlessly leave bad marriages. They do not have to continue the marital union if they are not in love with each other anymore, their partner turns abusive or the relationship falls apart for other reasons, such as irreconcilable differences.
Väestöliitto said this had resulted in an increase in the number of "happy" marriages despite high divorce rates. In 2019, there were 22,296 marriages and 13,365 divorces in the country of 5.5 million people. The year also marked an increase in the number of divorces after a fall for three consecutive years.
Happiness, a natural achievement
With Finland increasingly becoming the poster child for happiness in the recent years, one may ask whether Finns rolled up their sleeves and got down to business to top the happiness index. Did they strive to get to the top?
It has never been the collective objective of Finns to implement a set of carefully-designed measures that will help them eventually become the number 1 country in happiness. Apart from happiness, Finland has had other great achievements too over the years. The country has consistently ranked near the top of many global indices, such as women empowerment, democracy, gender equality, human development and education.
Aalto University's Dr Frank Martela, who specialises in researching the meaning of life and was one of the authors of the 2020 world happiness report, said Finns are not so obsessed with such rankings, including the happiness index. He told Yle's All Points North podcast that Finland had not consciously tried to reach those top positions. "It is something that just happened."
Happiness elements that stand the test of time
A key point to consider about the Yle survey is that it was conducted during the global Covid-19 pandemic. Finland was under a state of emergency at the time. There were numerous restrictions on public life, including shutdown of libraries, museums and schools, while the economy took a turn for the worse.
Yet, during such a stressful time, the elements of happiness revolved around simple subjects. The respondents opined that an ordinary everyday life is what leads to happiness.
Emeritus professor Ojanen said the survey findings were very similar to previous studies on happiness. The author of Kysymyksiä onnellisuudesta (Questions about Happiness) and Onnellisuuksien oivaltaja (One that Realises Happiness) also said studies over the years had found that day-to-day, mundane things are associated with happiness.
According to his own definition, "Happiness is a condition characterised by gratitude and contentment with the current situation, a condition in which one does not long for the past and nor for the future."
As for Jukka, who believes working mostly with non-Finnish speaking foreigners over the years has made him more extrovert than a typical Finn, he turned 55 this year. He would often tell me life as a senior citizen is the least pleasant thing in his country.
One day, he said, "Nobody contacts you when you are old. Nobody wants to know how you are. It gets lonely, and I am preparing for that."
I sensed pent-up agony in his voice as he bluntly spoke his mind. It presumably stemmed from reluctantly coming to terms with the inevitable. He was not against the idea of moving to a warm country to escape the harshness of the long, dark, snowy Finnish winter, as he would often tell me.
However, I believe he will give me the same simple answer if I ask him a decade later what makes him happy in Finland. Perhaps it will be modified like this: "I have a family and three healthy kids. Before retirement, I had nice colleagues who I had good relationships with."