Finland is the epitome of The Pursuit of Happiness and how nothing comes easy. For the past six years, Finland has been the happiest nation in the world, according to the World Happiness Survey. But, It hasn’t always been that way.
Finland’s history is intertwined with its neighbours, particularly Sweden and Russia. For centuries, it was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, gaining some autonomy but remaining under Swedish rule until 1809 when it was ceded to Russia. Finnish identity and nationalism began to emerge during this period, with the publication of the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folklore and mythology.
Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917, and after the chaos of World War I, the Russian Revolution and Finish Civil War, the country looked to rebuild itself and forge its own identity, a process closely tied to the idea of resilience and self-sufficiency.
Before 1940, Finland was what you might consider, a poor rural nation of urban and rural workers and independent farmers. It was a country thrust into atrocities of World War II where they were a co-belligerent on the side of the Axis Powers. This was a result of the Soviet invasion of Finland, as sanctioned by the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
With little or no support from other powers, Finland signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, an anti-communist agreement of mainly fascist powers, in November 1941. The main reason for Finland’s siding with Germany was to regain territory lost to the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939–1940.
In the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, Finland began to transform from a war-torn agrarian society into one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, with a sophisticated market economy and a high standard of living.
There was a period of uncertainty which would follow, when in 1991, Finland fell into a depression caused by a combination of economic overheating, fixed currency, and depressed Western, Soviet, and local markets. During this period stock market and housing prices would decline by 50%.
The growth in the 1980s was based on debt and defaults started rolling in. GDP declined by 15% and unemployment increased from virtual full employment to one-fifth of the workforce.
The crisis was amplified by trade unions’ initial opposition to any reforms. Politicians struggled to cut spending and the public debt doubled to around 60% of GDP. Some 7–8% of GDP was needed to bail out failing banks and force banking sector consolidation. After devaluations the depression bottomed out in 1993.
The road to happiness has not happened overnight, and some would argue that it’s not happiness, it’s contentment. Contentment which can be found in its social equality, trust and education system.
Finnish schools are renowned for their quality and inclusivity. Children begin their formal education at a relatively late age, yet Finnish students consistently rank among the best in international assessments. This success is attributed to a well-trained teacher workforce, a focus on student well-being, and an equitable education system that minimises disparities between schools.
Moreover, Finland has a robust social welfare system that promotes equality and supports its citizens from cradle to grave. Universal healthcare, generous parental leave, and unemployment benefits are just a few aspects of this comprehensive safety net. These policies contribute to a sense of security and well-being for all citizens, fostering happiness and reducing stress related to economic insecurity.
A key aspect of Finnish culture is the value placed on social equality and trust. The concept of “sisu,” which roughly translates to determination, grit, and resilience, encapsulates the Finnish spirit of overcoming challenges. The country’s strong social welfare system ensures that all citizens have access to essential services, contributing to a sense of security and social cohesion.
It’s not just Finland though that seems to have found the secret ingredient to ‘happiness.’ Nordic neighbours, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway also regularly find themselves occupying top ten positions in the World Happiness Survey.
To find out more about Finland and the Nordic way of life, the Atlantic Dispatch had the pleasure of speaking to Danny Dorling, author, and Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography, at the University of Oxford.
How much credence can we give to the World Happiness Survey? Would you say that it’s accurate and reflective of life in Finland?
Dorling: It is very unlikely that this is some artefact of the survey, although even Finns were very surprised when they first rose to 1st place 6 years ago. In short, things simply work in Finland. I was in Turku two days ago. Most bicycles were not locked overnight in the square where we were staying very near the bus station (the poorer end of town). There was no need to lock them, although some Finns will tell you that is foolhardy.
The public transport works, the schools work, the health service works. By works, I mean that it works very well in comparison with other countries. Although Finns are concerned about any sign of these basics of life not working as well as they could.
There is also immigration, which helps. Turku now has a population of over 200,000 people thanks to immigration. People have realistic expectations and so are happier with their lot than people anywhere else on the planet.
However, their expectations would be seen as a pipe dream in the UK – a much less happy country. We can only dream of basic services working as well or crime being so low. Greater economic equality is key to all this, as well as immigration helping the population not to fall (birth rates are low as they are in all equitable affluent countries worldwide).
What would you say are the main contributing factors leading to the happiness of the Finnish population?
Dorling: Hard work over decades by Finnish politicians to secure and then keep greater economic equality. Caring about what happens to the quarter of children who do worse at school than any other group. Realising that if they do not secure these things (such as the lowest rate of homelessness in the world) then no one else will do it for them.
Finland may have the advantage of not having an old aristocracy (or ‘old rich group’) trying to maintain or win back inequalities. And people coming in from elsewhere in the world also helps as countries with falling populations tend to be unhappy places. Migrants in Finland are happier than migrants in any other country in Europe.
What is it about the Nordic way of life that seems to breed positivity? Denmark and Iceland also continuously make the World Happiness Survey. What do you put this down to?
Dorling: It is not about culture. One hundred years ago Finland was a miserable place (a terrible civil war had only recently ended). Norway and Iceland were also poor. Sweden had lost an Empire earlier than that. Denmark did not emerge well from WW2 – so this is not some inherent Nordic culture – or anything to do with the Lutheran church or so-called “ethnic homogeneity.”
It may have been that these places were left alone long enough to secure what needed to be secured. They were not of much interest to the “great powers” during the Cold War. Finland in particular was neutral ground (between the USA and USSR) the place where peace talks were held. I suspect being left alone helped.
Finland may also have been helped by being “on the wrong side” in WW2. Japan has done similarly well from that. Almost any country benefits from its past leaders being – in effect – thrown out!
What have been your own personal experiences of Finland and other Nordic countries?
Dorling: It is a new culture – not the old one – not even the poverty and stoicalness of the 1960s and 1970s. Learning from other places impresses me. The Finns came to the UK to learn about our new comprehensive school system in the late 1960s – then made it work better in Finland (the opposition to educational equality was less). I enjoy how direct people are when they talk – and how much they are not impressed by snobbery and fake happiness.
In comparison, the culture in Britain is miserable. My book Shattered Nation which is published on September 19th looks at this issue in-depth and confronts the inequality and the geography of what I believe is a failing State
But at least the UK is not in as bad a state as America (health, education, housing – the basics of life – and happiness, genuine happiness). A simple way to compare nations is to see how many antidepressant drugs are consumed, per person per year, in each.