Written by Krista Tammila, EST Ambassador to Spain
What is the true meaning of happiness? How does one measure happiness? Do you consider yourself happy? These are all questions we have asked or been asked at some point of our lives and rightly so as being ‘happy’ is considered as one of the major goals in life. The abstract concept of the seemingly simple noun has facilitated a long standing dialogue dating back thousands of years to the time of ancient Greece. Famous philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle have all given their philosophical view on what happiness really means with answers ranging from living virtuously to pleasure to desire. Moreover, there are millions of self-help books and gurus offering a dizzying amount of advice to make yourself happier. But what really makes someone happy? In 2012, the UN undertook the mission of measuring people’s well-being when the prime minister of Bhutan at the time, Jigme Thinley, encouraged the inclusion of a more human element to the measurements of economic and social development (Pinsker, 2021). Thus, the yearly World Happiness Report published by the UN sustainable development solutions network is published on the happiest and saddest countries in the world.
The winner often can surprises people and it’s not surprising why, as this is a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, high levels of mental disorders such as depression, coupled with a considerably high rate of alcoholism. This delightful sounding place is Finland, a Nordic country situated between Sweden and Russia with a population of around 5.5 million. Finland has held its crown as the happiest country in the world for its fourth consecutive year now, closely followed by a few more chilly countries such as Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. But what really makes these wintry countries happy? Many would argue that warmer and cheaper countries would have the happiest people unlike frigid Finland. However ultimately, happiness is not the ebullient, outgoing, or ecstatic type of happiness, but rather more about contentment (Pinsker, 2021). This article will discuss two main factors contributing to Finland’s happiness: Its social welfare and trust in government.
How to measure “happiness”?
Some of the most famous statistics used to measure and track progress in a nation are GDP, household income, and unemployment rates. However, these traditional metrics do not encapsulate the level of happiness of the peoples as world leaders can no longer assume that a high level or rise in GDP means that their citizens are happy. So, leaders require a different approach to track the progress of their nation on a more human level (Gallup, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Tracks the World’s Happiness, 2022). Thus, the World Happiness Report was created in order to rank countries by how their populations feel, using the Cantril ladder method. The Cantril ladder is a simple visual scale which makes it possible to evaluate general life satisfaction (Mazur, Szkultecka-Dębek, Dzielska, Drozd, & Małkowska-Szkutnik, 2015). Essentially, it asks respondents to imagine a ladder which has a scale of the best possible life at 10 and the worst possible life at 0. Then, respondents are asked to rate their own current lives on the scale, as well as on which step they feel they would stand in about five years from now ( World Happiness Report, 2021). So, with the combined present and future scale, the reliability of the scale increases , as in traditional psychometrics, multiple items are typically used to measure a single construct (Gallup, 2022). Overall, this gives a strong and reliable picture of happiness in a given population.
Money can’t buy happiness…or can it?
Finland is known for many charming things including Santa Claus, its hundreds of thousands of lakes, and the dancing aurora borealis. Arguably however, one of Finland’s most valuable features is its social welfare system. In Finland, social welfare forms part of the overall system of social protection, which itself consists of two key elements: social welfare and income security. The concept of social welfare therefore represents a range of functions required by law for the municipal authorities to provide and includes general social services, special services for certain sections of the population, and the component of income security (Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, 2006). Based on the Nordic welfare state model, Finnish social welfare policies focus on the prevention of social problems and hence, are deemed the most economical and humane way of maintaining social welfare.
One would probably wonder what exactly the social welfare benefits are, which could possibly be in such high demand and of such great value that they are able to counter the cold winters for Finnish citizens. Well, simply put, money makes a difference. For example, Finland provides children with a safe environment in which to grow up as well as to ensure that parents are mentally and materially prepared to raise a child. Finland does this by providing benefits ranging from maternity and paternal allowance, child care allowances, or child benefits where the parents are eligible for a certain amount of money per child until that child is of 17 years of age. Another example is the excellent financial aid for students, which not only allows those with lower financial situations the same opportunities to study in university but also includes the government-guaranteed loan, which comes with excellent conditions such as a validity of 30 years to pay it back with a very low interest rate, as well as a zero security requirement as it is guaranteed by the Kansaneläkelaitos or more easily Kela. Kela is a Finnish government agency which is in charge of settling benefits under national social security programs. One of the more famous benefits for the younger generation is what most Finns like to refer to as ‘free money’ (Kela, 2021). This so-called ‘free money’ is a monetary package that is given to students living and studying abroad and consists of around €400 to €500. This study grant differs from a loan insofar as it is, in essence, not actually a loan at all. The money is not taxed nor are students required to pay it back. Rather, it is a means to help those studying to pay for rent and for other essentials such as food. Therefore, it is money that is given as a type of ‘gift’ each month.
It is important to remember of course that nothing is free even though it may seem like it. Finland has one of the highest taxation rates in the world with its tax system being progressive where the more you earn, the more taxes you pay (Kela, 2021). Ultimately, the taxes of Finnish citizens are being used for the social welfare benefits and shows how Finland is a country that can successfully utilize tax payers money in order to provide them with the benefits to ensure that its citizens are taken care of.
Trust in the government
However, money alone does not make Finland the world’s happiest country as money can only be used for a limited scope of things. One of the biggest determining factors which the World Happiness Report uses to illustrate a country’s happiness, is its citizens trust in their government. This is a very important factor as many of the richest countries such as the USA, Japan, or Russia have relatively low trust in their own governments and it further shows that just because a nation has extensive monetary resources, does not mean it is being used efficiently for its citizens (OECD, 2022). High trust in governance fundamentally ensures that there is a foundation for the legitimacy of public institutions and a functioning democratic system which guarantees not only social cohesion but also that the citizens of a nation are properly taken care of.
According to the OECD and Transparency International, Finland ranks as one of the countries with the highest t trust in government and rightly so. For example, not only have women represented the government of Finland, contributing to gender equality but also, as discussed prior, people see their taxes being used properly for their own benefit. So why is corruption so low in Finland and, as a result, trust in the government so high? To put it simply, Finland’s main strength is the key establishment and ongoing maintenance of the social order which does not allow any fertile ground for corruption to grow. Essentially, Finnish social order is characterized by a sense of the common good, self-control, moderation and so on and results in a society which morally and legally condemns the centralization of power, encouraging a culture of governance that cultivates the common good.
The presence of women in decision-making posts also is an important factor which aids in the confidence given to the government. In a World Bank study, there was a clear correlation between the representation of women in parliaments and top public positions with lower levels of corruption (Haberson, 2021). Finland has allowed women to perform a relatively prominent role in public administration for a long time now as it was the first country in the world to grant women the right to both vote and run for elected office in 1906. Since then, Finland has held its position with one of the strongest female parliamentary representation in the world. Most recently, Finland elected the youngest Prime Minister in the world Sanna Marin, who also happens to be a woman. So, with the increasing number of women that have positions in Finland’s government, it not only facilitates gender equality, but also promotes lower corruption, as there have been many studies that prove that higher rates of female participation in governments are associated with less levels of corruption (Dollar, Fisman, & Gatti, 1999).
Furthermore, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 and the chaos that is ensuing to fight the ongoing and ever evolving virus, Finland was still able to defend its title as happiest country in the world and this was mainly due to the very high levels of trust in government. It was precisely because of the society’s confidence in public institutions that Finland has avoided measures which reduced life satisfaction such as lockdowns (Pohjanpalo, 2021). So, due to that fundamental trust in the government, Finns had no reasons to oppose the measures that were imposed to safeguard public health, unlike in other countries where citizens took to rioting on the streets and looting stores to protest Covid-19 measures (Deutche Welle , 2020).
Ultimately, the highest echelon of happiest countries shows that factors such as good weather, cheap food or being rich does not equate to real happiness. Finland offers a clear example of how good policy-making and dedication to serving the common good results in a happier population. Clearly, the key is ensuring satisfaction with the standard of living and this can only occur with high levels of trust in government and a solid foundation of social welfare..
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