Finland is one of the happiest places on earth. At least, that’s what social scientists have found.
In 2010, Finland topped
Newsweek’s list of the world’s best countries
and was named the second happiest country by
the Gallup World Poll and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and
Development (ranking just below Denmark).
Newsweek’s study calculated
scores based on categories of health, education, quality of life, economic
dynamism and political environment, while Gallup’s four-year survey judged
happiness based on the subjective categories of life satisfaction and daily
obvious question in all this is: what makes Finland – with its near constant
cold and long stretches of darkness – such a happy place to live?
From an objective standpoint, Finns
experience a high quality of life, low levels of corruption, high literacy
rates, a small income gap, wide access to health care, high life expectancy
rates and a healthy work-life balance. But there are other, more personal
factors that help paint a fuller picture of the levels of happiness or
unhappiness in a particular country. The New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) National Accounts of Well-being project profiles European countries based on how
citizens feel about their own happiness. Finland’s
Well-being profile, for instance, scores especially high in the “Absence of
Negative Feelings” category, but just a bit above average in the “Positive
actually says a lot about Finnish culture, said Eric Weiner, author of the book
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search
for the Happiest Places in the World. “The Finns definitely
fall into the contentment range of the scale,” he said. “It’s not [the]
American idea of overflowing with joy… Northern European countries, where the
emotional range is more modulated – in the sense that they’re humming along at
fairly high levels, but don’t have these [emotional] peaks and valleys that
other European countries have – score higher [on happiness].”
one thing that happiness studies seem to leave out, however. Some of the happiest countries
in the world – Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the United States,
for instance – also have the highest suicide rates in the world.
Cold weather and darkness are
often blamed for high rates of depression in Finland, but in the US, sunny Hawaii,
which ranks second nationally in life satisfaction, has the fifth highest
suicide rate. Conversely, New York, which is equal parts sun and rain, ranks 45th
in life satisfaction (out of 50 states), but has the lowest suicide rate
These were the findings of the
research paper Dark
Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places, published
in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization this April. Its authors,
who hailed from the UK and the US, believe that these stark extremes exist together because people
often judge their well-being in comparative terms. The researchers say that a
depressed person may become even more depressed when surrounded by especially
researching The Geography of Bliss, Weiner said he encountered a Swiss writer who
explained it best: “If you’re living in a happy place and you’re not happy, you
think, ‘What the hell’s wrong with me?’ And, in a way, you feel
there’s more pressure on you or that you’re an outcast.”
In some countries, the
Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development says these extremes may
have more to do with measurable social factors. “One explanation for this paradox”, surmised
statistics expert Romina Boarini, “is that quality of life could be high on
average in a given country, and yet [does] not benefit some individuals, who
are left at the margin.” The
large income gap in the United States is one clear example. An upcoming study in
the journal Psychological Science finds that Americans are less happy during
times of great income inequity. When the gap between rich and poor widens, the
study says, people in middle- and lower-income groups become less trusting of
a link between high suicide rates and high overall happiness levels is
difficult to prove. Laura Stoll, researcher at the NEF’s Centre for Well-being,
said it’s important to remember that countries like Finland have small
populations, so a high suicide rate still translates to a small number of people
committing suicide each year. “But why is it higher in some places than others?
The truth is that we really don’t know,” Stoll said. “Some academics have
argued that the idea that there is a spectrum of well-being – with mental
ill-health at one end to high levels of well-being at the other – is wrong.
They hypothesise that there is not just one range that people fall along, but
that these are separate distributions.”
The NEF is teaming up with Sitra, the
Finnish Innovation Fund on
a project that will take a deeper look at the science and policies underlying
well-being. Their collaboration will hopefully lead to a better understanding
of what makes people and places happy.
The Geography of Bliss, Weiner concludes that at the end of the day,
“happiness” holds a different meaning for different people and for different cultures.
Reflecting upon his travels in 10 different countries, he writes: “…[O]nly a fool or philosopher
would make sweeping generalizations about the nature of happiness. I am no
philosopher, so here goes: Money matters, but less than we think and not in the
way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive
thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.
To venture any further, though,
is to enter treacherous waters.”
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the
travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and
uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel
question, contact Travelwise.
Correction: A previous version of this article included a flag from a Finnish yacht club, not the Finnish flag.