What Makes the People of Finland So Happy?

The latest World Happiness Report was just released, and for the third year in a row, Finland is the world’s happiest country, followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway.

The results are based on Gallup poll data of 1,000 people from each of 153 countries over a three-year period. The report ranks each country based on the average result of the polls. Respondents in each country are asked a basic question:

Imagine that life is a ladder, with the bottom rung being the worst life you can imagine and the top rung being the best life you can imagine. Where are you on the ladder?”

For the first time, the survey also ranked the top cities, with the following results:

  1. Helsinki (Finland)
  2. Aarhus (Denmark)
  3. Wellington (New Zealand)
  4. Zurich (Switzerland)
  5. Copenhagen (Denmark)

The highest-ranked U.S. city was Washington, D.C., coming in at number 18 (Philadelphia was number 28).

The study also examined urban-rural happiness differentials across the world. In line with earlier research, the study found that urban populations are, on average, happier than rural populations in that they return higher levels of happiness.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the report was one that tried to explain why the Nordic countries are constantly among the happiest in the world.

Here are some of the conclusions reached by the research team:

  • Nordic countries are characterized by a virtuous cycle in which various key institutional and cultural indicators of good society feed into each other including well-functioning democracy, generous and effective social welfare benefits, low levels of crime and corruption, and satisfied citizens who feel free and trust each other and governmental institutions.
  • There is rather a more general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities.
  • The quality of institutions plays a key role in ensuring citizen happiness. Thus, minimizing corruption and maximizing citizen participation and representation in various decisions can help to ensure that institutions serve citizens and maintain their trust. Democratic quality and factors such as free press, informed and educated citizens, and strong civic society play an important role in keeping the government accountable and citizen-oriented.
  • On a cultural level, arguably the most important factor is to generate a sense of community, trust, and social cohesion among citizens. A divided society has a hard time providing the kind of public goods that would universally support each citizen’s ability to live a happier life. In a divided society, people also tend to be less supportive of various welfare benefits because worry they would benefit the ‘other’ groups, as well. When people care about each other and trust each other, this provides a much more stable base on which to build public support for various public goods and welfare benefit programs.

In a New York Times article about the happiness study, reporter Maria Cramer notes that the Finns pride themselves on their stoicism, something that may not often be associated with happiness.

However, as John F. Helliwell, an editor of the annual happiness report, points out, happy people may not have the highest smile factor, but they do trust each other and care about each other, and that’s what fundamentally makes for a better life.

The Times article also notes that richer countries are happier than poor ones.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which publishes the annual report, notes that unlike the United States, where a loss of faith in institutions has dovetailed with the drop in happiness reported by Americans, people in Scandinavian countries believe in one another and their governments.

In Finland, 91 percent of survey respondents reported being satisfied with their president and 86 percent said they trust the police. I don’t know what the corresponding numbers are for the U.S., but I think we can all agree that they ould be substantially lower.

Sachs relates these results to the covid-19 pandemic, noting that the idea that we’re all in this together is really being tested. “We’re going to have to find that common sense of shared responsibility to pull through the crisis.”

Compare this to what Frank Martela, a Finnish philosopher who contributed to the report, has to say about things in Finland at this time:

“Every time the president or the prime minister holds a public speech about the issue, the overwhelming response is one of trust and commitment. People are stating and feeling that we are in this together.”

Mr. Martela added that Finns were volunteering in large numbers to go to the grocery store for others and had started campaigns to help artists and other people whose livelihoods are threatened by the crisis.

Of course, such altruistic behavior is not limited to the Finns, and I am sure many of us in the U.S. have seen such acts of kindness during the coronavirus crisis.

But despite such generous behavior, there is still a divide between people in the U.S. All you have to do is look at polls involving President Trump and Congress. There is both a wide divergence of opinion regarding their performance as well as an overall lack of trust in our leaders.

And if you wonder if such opinions and attitudes have an impact on one’s happiness, the U.S was ranked number 18 in the world…

We can do better. And to fight covid-19, we must do better.

*image from the Independent

40 thoughts on “What Makes the People of Finland So Happy?

  1. i love this study and it makes perfect sense to me. (though i might opt for the warmer climate happy place option of nz). hopefully, this crisis will bring a sense of ‘one for all’ when it is all over, though at this point, there is little confidence in our leadership and our country’s preparedness.


    1. it is quite a comprehensive study, and it is remarkable how well the Nordic/Scandinavian countries do every year in this report. But like you, I would have little desire to live there because of the colder weather. Perhaps this crisis will make us realize that experience, competence, and character matter in our leaders…


  2. In spite of all the indicators to the contrary, I choose to be happy. And I am with Beth, NZ seems a likely place to move to. Beth for the weather, me for the lack of language barrier, and both of us for the wanton happiness!


  3. Hi Jim,

    There are some negatives from the standpoint of progressives. First, Finland is a highly capitalist economy opposed to socialism. Second, Finland hates diversity and quickly closed its borders to refugee immigration while such immigration was causing troubles in neighboring Sweden. Immigrants that sneaked into Finland were re-routed to the Swedish border. Finland across the years has never welcomed immigration.

    Third, Finland’s single-payer medical system has been deemed non-sustainable and recently led to the overthrow of the government. Four, even before the pandemic Finland had a relatively high rate of unemployment.

    Five, like most wintry nations Finland has a problem with alcoholism. I was once lecturing in Finland on May Day that is a celebration day, especially among college students. The entire downtown area was closed to traffic, and when I got up the next morning the streets were lined with fallen students that were still passed out. The good news is that nobody drinks and drives in Finland. Doing so leads to an automatic year in jail, although jail time in Finland is more or less a discretionary come-and-go type of thing for non-violent offenders.

    Six, sex with partners is on the decline in Finland —

    Seven, unlike Denmark Finland is not a particularly welcoming nation when it comes to tourists (strangers) on the streets. Finns tend to avoid eye contact and making greetings even with one another unless they know each other. My university hosts, however, were very warm and friendly. I was invited into their homes for nightly dinners.


    1. Thanks, Bob, for your comprehensive comments.

      Yes, Finland is capitalistic, but it also has high taxes and a strong social safety net. It is a blend of capitalism and socialism, perhaps the ideal social democracy.

      I can’t comment on your statements about immigration, but I could not find anything that supports statements such as “Finland hates diversity” and “Finland across the years has never welcomed immigration.”

      Finland’s health care system, like many around the world, is under pressure because of its aging population. That being said, Finland is one of the five countries with the lowest maternal mortality rates, and Finns have longer life expectancy than Americans. Finland also comes out among the top countries in the world for access to health care.

      While unemployment is relatively high in Finland, it seems that the country has a generous benefits package for unemployed individuals.

      Substance abuse is a problem in many countries, just look at the opioid crisis in the U.S.

      I don’t know enough about your other statements to offer a reply.

      Finland seems like a great country, but I still feel blessed to have been born in the U.S. and have no intentions of moving. That being said, there is a lot we could do to become better, and looking to the Nordic countries for some guidance might be helpful.


      1. Hi Jim,
        You said you could not find anything about immigrants in Finland. When searching nearly always begin with Wikipedia —

        “As of 2018, there are 402,600 foreigners people residing in Finland, which corresponds to 7.3% of the population. Numerous polls in 2010 indicated that the majority of the Finnish people want to limit immigration to the country in order to preserve regional and native cultural diversity.[2] It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 1-1.2 million foreigners in Finland.”

        It’s pretty easy to stop illegal immigration in Finland. First there’s the language which can’t be spoken if you’re not born there. Then there’s the frigid North Sea and the Polar north. The Finns despise Russians to a point that any Russian caught sneaking across the border will not end up happy. I don’t think the Swedes are big on sneaking into Finland because they too are unwelcome. In all Nordic nations its been historically difficult to become citizens with full benefits. For a time Sweden made an exception for limited numbers of Islamic refugees, but the Swedes are no longer welcoming.

        Interestingly, last night on March 22 Sixty Minutes did a segment on Hungary’s Iron Curtain preventing all immigration. The show discussed the problem of decades of population decline in Hungary coupled with militant policies about relieving this problem with immigration. Instead the nation is now spending billions to increase birth rates among current citizens. These incentives include loans that are forgiven in phases with each child. New parents also receive subsidies for new mini-vans.

        The borders of Europe in general were closed even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
        The Atlantic: The Swiftly Closing Borders of Europe —

        Time Magazine: “The coronavirus outbreak is the latest in a long line of crises that have thrust the E.U. into existential despair. The euro-zone crisis of 2008 first gave the lie to the dream of a pan-European solidarity, with wealthier nations loath to take any economic hit to come to the aid of struggling ones. The refugee crisis of 2015 exacerbated this. As 1 million people arrived at E.U. borders seeking sanctuary, governments turned on one another; there was little support for nations like Italy and Greece on the front line of the crisis —

        Jensen Comment
        Now European “states” like Germany have closed their borders to one another, and the U.K. withdrew from the EU. The EU has never achieved the solidarity of the 50 states of the USA giving so much power to Washingon DC.

        If you advocate increasing diversity in the USA you will be pleased to know that millions of people from all over the world may soon be making their way for USA borders.
        Both Biden and Sanders are promising lax border enforcement of immigration law—


      2. Hi Bob, thanks for the Wikipedia info; it’s one of my go-to sources as well. I guess I was just looking for something that states that “Finland hates diversity”; that is not the message I get when reading the article you sent. It will be interesting to see what the world looks like when covid-19 is under control. We just found out today that Villanova has decided to extend the online classes through the end of the semester. It was hoped that students could return to campus after Easter. We have also canceled the on-campus graduation. It will also be interesting to see what higher ed will look like when all this settles down.

        For an interesting perspective, here’s a post from Fred Wilson, a well-known venture capitalist whose daily blog has over 300,000 readers: https://avc.com/2020/03/teaching-online/

        Hope you are well in the White Mountains!


  4. Well, if Finland isn’t at the tippy top of places to live there is always Sweden, Denmark, Norway etc.
    The tearing down of the reputations of our institutions in the US is a travesty. Let’s hope we continue to have faith in the CDC and local public health officials.
    I’ll spare all my political rant.


    1. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else (I’m in the U.S.), but there is a lot we can do better, and we can learn a lot from the Nordic countries…


  5. What gives? My hometown, Toronto (Canada), snuck in at lucky #13, nestled between Reykjavik (12) and Melbourne (14). Most native Hogtowners/Torontonians/Tarahnians would think they should rank top 3. Just how my entitled Homies think. I’m surprised we made the top 50 .. uh, traffic, property taxes, real estate prices, former crack-smoking mayor (true) … I’ll let all 6.5 million of them know. We have some work to do in the 416 (area code). Thanks, as always Jim.


    1. way to go Toronto! I think there’s a lot of work to do everywhere – but it looks like you’ve got a head start. Funny that the top U.S. city also had a crack-smoking mayor at one point…


  6. I wonder what percent of Finland’s budget goes to defense? I wonder if they are patrolling international waters again pirates? Just a thought


    1. there is a lot of data, and I did not do justice to all that is there. It is, as you point out, quite comprehensive, but hopefully some lessons to be learned as well.


  7. Very interesting! I don’t think any country is perfect but I think we can all definitely learn a few things from these countries!


  8. Finland seems to well in many studies but too cold for me. Thailand didn’t feature top or bottom so am guessing it is somewhere in the middle and warm…Stay safe and Healthy and remember to smile 🙂


      1. I do like the constant here our temps stay pretty much the same even overnight except for a few weeks of the year… It suits our health no chest infections like I used to get in the U. K.. no aches and pain’s in the joints either… No winter or summer clothes is also a bonus… Stay well..


      1. Hi Jim,

        You seem to argue that Finland would welcome immigrants who choose to live there.

        There are hundreds of millions of people in the world that will emigrate to any OECD nation that will welcome them.

        Finland did not stay 98.4% white without building a wall against immigration.
        You can’t even become a non-citizen resident unless you have an acceptable job beforehand, and that alone is only one of many very difficult hurdles to residency and citizenship.

        There’s growing sentiment in Finland to grant jobs only to citizens —

        The bottom line is that Finland is a very happy white (98.4%) society.

        And then there are the rankings of the Finland education system as the very best in the world. However, much of the credit goes to a factor outside the education system — interaction of fathers with children
        Finland is purportedly the only nation of the world where fathers spend more time with school-aged children than mothers —


        Nearly half the children in the USA now have experienced single-parent homes —
        Lack of interaction of fathers with children is an enormous problem relative to Finland.


      2. if that’s the case regarding immigration, then that is a blemish on Finland. As to the success of its educational system, whatever the reasons may be, other countries should learn from Finland.


  9. Good post Jim. Thanks for sharing. It’s evident from this study that happiness is less individualistic and comes from more of a collective mindset. It makes sense that less corruption and more trust makes a happier society.


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