The Finnish secret to happiness? Knowing when you have enough

Published by Australian Financial Review 2 min read
Financial Health Wellness

This year’s annual World Happiness Report, which rates wellbeing in countries around the world, ranked Finns first. How they perceive financial success helps.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network released its annual World Happiness Report, which rates wellbeing in countries around the world, last month. For the sixth year in a row, Finland was ranked at the very top.

But Finns themselves say the ranking points to a more complex reality.

“I wouldn’t say that I consider us very happy,” said Nina Hansen, 58, a high school English teacher from Kokkola, a mid-size city on Finland’s west coast. “I’m a little suspicious of that word, actually.”

Hansen was one of more than a dozen Finns whom The New York Times spoke to – including a Zimbabwean immigrant, a folk metal violinist, a former Olympian and a retired dairy farmer – about what, supposedly, makes Finland so happy.

The subjects ranged in age from 13 to 88 and represented a variety of genders, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds and professions. They came from Kokkola as well as the capital, Helsinki; Turku, a city on the south-western coast; and three villages in southern, eastern and western Finland.

While people praised Finland’s strong social safety net and spoke glowingly of the psychological benefits of nature and the personal joys of sports or music, they also talked about guilt, anxiety and loneliness. Rather than “happy”, they were more likely to characterise Finns as “quite gloomy”, “a little moody” or not given to unnecessary smiling.

Many also shared concerns about threats to their way of life, including possible gains by a far-right party in the country’s elections, the war in Ukraine and a tense relationship with Russia, which could worsen now that Finland has joined NATO.

It turns out even the happiest people in the world aren’t that happy. But they are something more like content.

Finns derive satisfaction from leading sustainable lives and perceive financial success as being able to identify and meet basic needs, said Arto Salonen, a professor at the University of Eastern Finland who has researched wellbeing in Finnish society. “In other words,” he wrote in an email, “when you know what is enough, you are happy.”

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