Finns keep shining in the World Happiness Report, though they often tend to question whether they should really be ranked among the happiest nations. They also dominate many other global indicators, such as good governance, education and gender equality. It seems they have got it all figured out.
However, no matter how highly their happiness is ranked, they still have problems. Mental health issues prevail in Finland, which was named the world’s happiest country in 2021 for the fourth year in a row. The Nordic country faces various challenges when it comes to tackling depression among the youth.
Moreover, drug offences have been rising among all age groups. The use of amphetamine drug has been increasing dramatically since 2012, Finnish police said in March. In a 2019 report, the National Council of Women in Finland, which represents 67 organisations working on gender equality, said up to 47% of women and girls over the age of 15 had experienced physical or sexual violence. Amnesty International in its 2020-’21 annual report also slammed Finland’s record on intimate partner violence against women.
Even Finland’s millennial Prime Minister Sanna Marin admits that Finland is not a dream world. She said problems exist in her country.
Nevertheless, the Nordic country is equipped with some policy choices that allow it to solve some pressing problems. These are problems that many countries grapple with. Marin herself is a glaring example of how solving these problems can put even the most ordinary members of society on a path to prosperity.
And her life may give us a clue to some of the factors that enable Finland and other Nordic nations to consistently rank among the world’s happiest countries.
Welfare state’s poster child
By now, there is perhaps no region in the world where Marin’s story has not reverberated. She hit the global headlines in December 2019 when she became the world’s youngest prime minister at the age of 34. She took the helm of a five-party, all-female coalition and became an icon in Finnish politics.
But her early life was not a bed of roses. She comes from a very ordinary family. She did not grow up amid material abundance. A big shock came when she was just a few years old. Her parents split because of her father’s alcohol problems. Her mother then got into a same-sex relationship and the two ladies raised her.
“My family is full of sad stories like many other Finns,” she wrote on her blog in 2016.
Her family also had money problems. She worked at a bakery and distributed magazines to earn pocket money during high school. She worked in sales alongside her university studies. She was also the first member of her family to obtain a university degree. She has first-hand experience of the challenges that people growing up in cash-strapped families face.
But stories of hardship and misery in early life are in no way exclusive to Marin. Many successful people in a variety of fields, including politics, business and art, have grown up amid adversities and challenges.
Oprah Winfrey, who was born into the poorest possible circumstances, had to wear a potato sack because her family could not afford proper clothing. John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire co-founder of the hair care company John Paul Mitchell Systems, landed in the foster care system when his single mother could no longer support him. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sold tea as a child at a railway station.
What sets Marin apart, however, is how the state played the role of a facilitator to not only address her suffering through social support but also create conditions that enabled her to make progress in life. In many interviews she gave after she had taken office as the prime minister, she candidly expressed her gratitude to Finland’s social welfare policy. She reiterated that she would not have risen from her humble roots to reach this stage in her life if it were not for social support.
She is right. The Nordic welfare policies are legendary. They offer assistance that aims to ensure a basic level of social protection for all their citizens.
As a Nordic country, Finland has one of the most comprehensive packages of social benefits. The package includes family and housing benefits, unemployment benefits, survivor benefits, and many more. Finns also get free education and free healthcare. These are funded through heavy taxations.
The welfare policy takes care of even the average Finn from cradle to grave. It is not required to be some kind of a privileged member of society to avail social benefits. Every Finn is eligible for social protection as the welfare system is founded on a principle of universal rights based on citizenship.
Due to this universality, Marin and her family received social support because they needed it based on their circumstances. She did not receive assistance because she exhibited signs that she was going to lead her country as a successful politician one day. After all, who was certain back then that she would make it big in politics in the future?
Marin’s stunning rise is mostly viewed as an individual success story. But her success, powered by the Finnish welfare policy, is part of a larger story that may not be immediately obvious to everyone.
As per the welfare policy, Finland provides a range of benefits to its citizens who deal with various life challenges. But the bigger picture is that the welfare programme creates conditions where there are equal opportunities for everyone in the society to grow, succeed, and prosper.
Every Finn has the same opportunities to build the type of life they want. They can dream big regardless of the socio-economic conditions of their parents, and their education system is a classic example of how this works.
Decades ago, Finland had a mediocre education system. There were stark inequalities not only in society but also in education. Finns planned education reforms that were initiated in the 1970s.
The main aim of the reform was to build good public schools for “every single child”.
This may sound trivial, but it was more than remarkable. It was a game-changer. It was part of a gigantic vision.
The vision was that no child would be left behind. Still, a poor, agrarian country at the time, Finland wanted to utilise 100% of its human capital to create a knowledge-based society. It wanted to give every single child across the country the same opportunities to receive high-quality education for free. Unlike many developed countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, education is free in the Nordics as it is considered a civil right and a public service rather than a commodity.
While implementing the reforms, Finland did not want to build only a handful of Ivy League schools that will provide top-notch education to selective students. If some students attend top-quality schools and others do not, it will inevitably create inequalities, something Finns were determined to root out.
Therefore, instead of building a number of top schools, Finland aimed for upgrading the standards of every single school to the same level. Rather than focusing on producing some star students who will achieve stellar academic scores, it aimed for achieving equity.
In the context of education, equity means ensuring access to high-quality education for all children irrespective of where they live, what the economic situation of their parents is, or which school they attend.
Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a prominent Finnish education expert who has taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, writes that Finland has deliberately designed its education system from primary school to higher education on the values and principles of equal rights to education.
“Finland upgraded the teaching profession in the 1980s to serve that purpose so that each and every child would have a great public school in their neighbourhood,” he wrote.
After the reforms were implemented, all Finnish children had to go to a nine-year comprehensive school starting at the age of seven. Marin attended such a school. She matriculated in 2004 from a school in Pirkkala, some 10 km from Tampere, which is Finland’s second-most populous urban area. She wrote that her teachers were encouraging and demanding, and she remembered many of them with great warmth.
Moreover, children of families that were richer or poorer than Marin’s also attended such government schools. Without discriminating among rich and poor students, the schools they attended gave all of them the same head start because the quality of education was the same.
Rising through ranks
What happens when a country provides such equal opportunities to all its citizens? According to the World Economic Forum, something remarkable.
In January 2020, the World Economic Forum released its first-ever social mobility index report. Social mobility is defined as the upward or downward change in an individual’s socioeconomic status compared to that of his or her parents. In absolute terms, it is the ability of a child to experience a better life than its parents.
The key finding of the report was that most countries fail to provide favourable conditions that allow their citizens to thrive. This keeps an individual’s opportunities to move ahead in life tied to his or her socioeconomic status at birth, a situation that perpetuates inequalities.
Of the 82 countries that the report surveyed, the Nordic nations reigned supreme. Denmark topped the rankings, followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland.
“These nations combine access, quality, and equity in education, while also providing work opportunities and good working conditions, alongside quality social protection and inclusive institutions,” the report said.
Terming education a powerful equaliser of chances, it said ensuring that individuals have equal opportunities to access the best schools is essential to reviving social mobility.
The report found that it would take only two to three generations for a low-income family in the Nordic countries to approach the median income, as opposed to five in the US and six in Germany. In India, it would take seven generations. This means Nordic citizens born in low-income families can improve their socioeconomic status way quicker than Americans, Germans and Indians coming from such families.
This is interesting, given America has long been hailed as the place where everyone has a chance to improve their life. It has been called the land of opportunity. The “American dream” is all about opportunities for everyone to build a better, richer and fuller life.
But the social mobility report showed that it was no longer easy to achieve the “American dream” in the United States. Instead, the Nordic countries offered better opportunities to achieve the “American dream”. One of the key reasons was that there was less upward social mobility and more inequalities in the US while it was the opposite in the Nordics.
To put it another way, the US and many wealthy nations do not offer equally shared opportunities to their citizens to grow and thrive to the extent the Nordic countries do. Thus, a Nordic citizen is more capable of rising above the socioeconomic status of his or her parents than an American. The Nordics have actually created a level playing field for the citizens to succeed and upgrade their lives.
Take the case of Marin. Equally shared opportunities enabled her to experience upward social mobility within just one generation. Her parents did not have a university degree, but she has. Her parents had financial problems, but she is now earning much more than the median income in Finland. She succeeded in building a far better life than her parents despite being born in a family where money was scarce.
Simply put, she achieved the “American dream” in Finland. She also publicly talked about it.
“I feel that the American dream can be achieved best in the Nordic countries where every child, no matter their background or the background of their families, can become anything,” she told The Washington Post at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos.
She also attempted to crack the Finnish happiness code, saying, “We have a very good education system.”
“We have a good healthcare and social welfare system that allows anybody to become anything,” she said. “This is probably one of the reasons Finland gets ranked the happiest country in the world.”
A good education system, a good healthcare system and the social welfare system allow anybody to become anything – does that ring a bell? Marin was actually referring to how the Finnish welfare policy provides equally shared opportunities to all Finns, which, as explained above, creates more upward social mobility.
Social mobility and happiness
Now we understand that the more upwardly mobile a society is, the easier it will be for the group at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to climb up. This is the socio-economic implication of social mobility. But is there a link between high social mobility and happiness, as Marin implied?
The World Economic Forum says yes.
The social mobility index report says social mobility is closely correlated with life satisfaction. It further says countries can improve the life satisfaction of their citizens by improving social mobility.
Frank Martela, a Finnish well-being researcher at the prestigious Aalto University, agrees with this correlation. Replying to an email query, he said the fact that Finland aims to give every citizen an equal chance to succeed is surely one of the sources of Finnish happiness.
“This is visible right now among our ministers,” he said. “A few of them come from quite poor backgrounds. Yet, they have been able to rise to the top of the country. Marin herself is a case in point. Her parents divorced when she was small, and her mother did not have too much money.”
The author of A Wonderful Life also agrees with Marin’s view that the American dream, the chance to get ahead in one’s life, is most possible in the Nordic countries.
“The Nordics offer free education and free healthcare that aim to ensure the same chances for everyone, no matter what their social background is,” said Martela, who was one of the authors of the 2020 World Happiness Report.
Jolliness is not Finnish happiness
What does it mean to be happy? Being in a jovial mood and smiling from ear to ear? Expressing lots of positive emotions? Well, not in Finland.
For sure, happiness is subjective. Its measurement is complicated. Different people define happiness differently. Though Finns have attracted global attention as the world’s happiest nation, they also have a reputation for being reticent. As they are not into small talk, they mostly appear unfriendly to foreigners.
If happiness is measured by assessing how outwardly joyous or cheerful a nation is, Latin American countries will dominate the list while Finland will be nowhere near the top, said Martela. Finnish-American journalist Anu Partanen terms Finns pessimistic by nature and emotionally reserved. She said Finns are ranked the happiest people as the happiness study measures the quality of life, not outward expressions of happy feelings.
In fact, Finnish happiness results more from state policies offering equal opportunities to everyone irrespective of their family backgrounds and enabling upward social mobility than overt displays of positive emotions. In 2017, I interviewed 10 Finns, including travel bloggers, students, a cultural anthropologist and a screenwriter, about the idea of Finnishness, the characteristics that make someone a Finn. I asked them why Finns are so happy.
One of them was Mika Väistö, an advertising professional. He concurred with Martela and Partanen, saying, “It is interesting that Finland is ranked as a happy nation, because you can rarely see that in our face. I have travelled to some poor countries and have seen the biggest smiles there.”
However, all my interviewees largely agreed that the Finnish welfare system, free high-quality education, free healthcare, gender equality, clean nature, a high degree of personal freedom and a well-functioning society are the key factors that lead to Finnish happiness. It is more about the system than roaring with laughter to show how upbeat you are.
Happiness of Finns
The problem with big success stories is that people often cannot easily relate to those. They think those successful individuals belong to a unique group that has some inherent exclusivities. As they have a hard time picturing themselves in positions where those highly successful people have reached, these stories of climbing to enviable heights by overcoming formidable challenges mostly fail to motivate them.
Marin’s success story is also likely to be perceived that way by many people. Many may think it is natural for her to be happy now as she is a very important person with high social and political status. They may also think a Finnish politician’s happiness has nothing to do with their own happiness because they are just ordinary members of the society and their reality is a far cry from that of someone like Marin.
This is absolutely true, and that is why it is more important to talk about the happiness of commoners. If Finnish policies give Marin a good life and make her happy, can they have the same effects on other Finns? More specifically, can they create a sense of life satisfaction among ordinary members of Finnish society?
Partanen tells such a story of an ordinary Finn in her book The Nordic Theory of Everything. This is the story of Kaarina, a Finnish freelance writer. Her husband was a craftsman specialising in building custom stone walls. When he died of cancer, Kaarina had to shoulder the responsibility to not only pay the family’s mortgage but to support her two young children as well – all by herself.
Yet, she managed to deal with her husband’s illness and death without slipping into huge debts. Cancer treatment is expensive, but her husband’s medical bills were not that high. She and her children also received a survivor’s pension after the husband’s death, in addition to all the usual benefits available to families.
Her children continued their schooling without any trouble because of free education. Moreover, Kaarina was able to continue her freelance career as Finland’s generous parental leave policy had allowed her to keep working while raising her children. She did not have to sacrifice her career to take care of the children, a situation that is all too common in Bangladesh, my home country, due to a lack of national daycare services accessible by every citizen and anomalies in implementations of the maternity leave policy.
In Finland, Kaarina does not hold a political position as crucial as that of Marin. She is just an ordinary Finn, something Marin also was before rising through the political ranks. Yet, the Finnish welfare policy-protected her and her children after her husband’s death in the same way Marin was safeguarded during the challenging times of her life.
The loss of her husband certainly left Kaarina emotionally devastated. Partanen asked her what she thought the Finnish welfare policy had meant for her in the face of such a terrible incident in life.
“I am a good example of what happens to a person who has no family and no employer to support them,” Kaarina replied.
“Anywhere else in the world, anywhere outside the Nordic countries, my family’s life and my kids’ future, not to mention my own economic and social status, would have changed dramatically and permanently,” she added. “Now the loss is only personal, if you will. Any other time in history, my sons would have been struck by an immense tragedy also in light of their futures.”
Do Kaarina’s words indicate that the Finnish welfare policy positively impacted her feeling of happiness in any way? At least it protected her own financial and social status even though she did not have a formal employer as such. It also protected her children from facing an immense future tragedy.
One thing is for sure. If she and her children did not have that comprehensive social protection, the circumstances she would have slipped into certainly would not have made her happy. And that is the broad implication of Finnish happiness. The Finnish system not only attempts to make Marin happy. It also attempts to make Kaarina happy.
Mahmudul Islam is a Finnophile journalist in Dhaka, who has been writing about Finland for five years in his Medium publication.