Finland – despite its long stretches of darkness and high suicide rate– was named the second happiest country by a Gallup survey. And are depression and happiness connected?

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 experiences.

The 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 Feelings” category.

This 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].”

There’s 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 nationally.

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 happy people.

While 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 others.

Still, 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.

In 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.


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