According to a new survey, Finland is the happiest country in the world. As a Finn, I’m not 100 percent sold on the idea.
After nearly 10 years in Argentina, I’m used to locals asking me what it was that prompted me to move from the most perfect of countries, my native Finland, only to come here to South America to live amid constant economic problems, rampant corruption, and never-ending political instability.
Argentinians often view my country as a Narnia-like magical land where everyone is happy and poverty and inequality don’t exist. They also view their own country in extremely pessimistic terms. And why shouldn’t they? Given the economic turmoils (in the past year the Argentine peso lost half its value, inflation has been deep in the double digits for the past decade and poverty is soaring), it’s sometimes hard even for me to keep faith in my life decisions.
Lately, I’ve been hearing these comments even more often than usual, due to news arriving from Finland that seems to place the country at the top of yet another international ranking: the World Happiness Report put the country in the first place, for the second consecutive year. It seems I’ve made all the wrong decisions if what I want is a happy life.
Online, Finnish people have answered to this piece of news with humor, posting countless memes that show the grim reality of life in the Nordic country, covered in snow for a bigger part of the year and inhabited by people of few words and even fewer smiles. Many emigrés, too, have taken to social media to make fun of the country and it’s perceived perfection. We remember the cold winters, the silences and the general unhappiness we used to experience while living there. We also see the problems the country faces from a different perspective.
The Happiness Report
Looking into the World Happiness Report, the six key variables it uses to explain the results are GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and absence of corruption. However, the study stresses that it’s based on individuals’ own assessments of their happiness and not merely on measuring these six variables.
The top 5 is filled with Nordic countries. Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland hold the top spots, with the Netherlands being the only country from the rest of Europe to be admitted in that high company. The United States is at number 19. The top of the ranking is also heavily European, either geographically or culturally.
At the bottom of the list are impoverished, often African states, like South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In the bottom three, there’s also Afganistan, where freedom to make life decisions is practically nonexistent. In war-torn or crisis-ridden countries (often with authoritarian governments) where people can’t guarantee their livelihood, it’s fairly obvious why people’s perceived happiness is lower.
The gap between the extremes is huge. “Average life evaluations in the top 10 countries are more than twice as high as in the bottom 10,” the report stresses. It also notes the high impact of economic development on perceived happiness: “GDP per capita is 22 times higher in the top 10 than in the bottom 10 countries”.
What’s so great about Finland?
Well, for starters the education system has a reputation of being among the best in the world, consistently ranking high in OECD’s famous PISA studies. Schools are public, books are provided by the state, and even meals are included from first grade all the way until the end of high school. University education is free, and the country also offers several hundred euros of monthly aid to every student. All these measures help bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor (mostly lower middle class, not poverty in the same way as in the US or Latin America).
Finns are also very proud of their nature. The country is about 73% covered in forest and has over 180,000 lakes. Yes, these numbers are real. When in the 1960s the waters were severely contaminated following rapid post-war industrialization, measures were quickly taken to restore them, with legislation to limit industrial contaminants. Finland also has some of the world’s oldest laws for forest protection, with the principle of reforestation to counteract deforestation being written in norms already in the late 19th century.
Women’s rights are another important issue, and one Finns themselves are especially proud of. Finland was the first country in the world to give women full political rights in 1906 (actually, when it was still a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire). Finland had the first female MP’s in the world, and today it has one of the best records in Europe and the world as far as gender equality goes. Later, the country championed women’s rights in its foreign policy, pushing a progressive agenda for the inclusion of women in developing countries (especially under the presidency of Tarja Halonen from 2000 to 2012).
In keeping with the social democratic agenda so common in the Nordic countries, in 2013 the story of how Finland eliminated inequality and reduced childhood mortality by giving expecting mothers cardboard boxes for their babies to sleep in made headlines around the world. The boxes that are given for free to every future mother are filled with supplies for the newborn and are designed to be the baby’s first bed. First introduced in the 1930s, they have been a staple of the Finnish social security system ever since, but after the BBC story went viral they have been copied in many countries around the world.
As far as other international rankings go, Transparency International has consistently placed Finland among the least corrupt countries in the world (the differences with Argentina in this aspect alone are pretty obscene). Finland has also been considered the least Fragile State in the world for years, indicating a level of political stability many Latin American countries can only hope to achieve.
What’s not so perfect
Not everything is bliss in this Nordic utopia. For starters, the education system is far from perfect. After the first years of success in the PISA studies, Finland has been knocked off the podium as countries such as Singapore and Japan, and even Finland’s neighbor Estonia have been taking the top spots. This can be due to a lot of factors, such as other countries stepping up their game. But it can also reveal a disturbing trend: the first PISA studies were organized in 2000 and measured the abilities of children born in the mid-1980s like myself, who had been able to enjoy the best the Nordic welfare state model had to offer.
The past years, by contrast, Finland has been governed mostly by right-wing parties, the last four by a three-party coalition that even included a far-right party, Perussuomalaiset. Cuts have been made to education and Finland has been following the trend set in so many other European countries and the U.S. of leaning increasingly to the right. (The government resigned a couple of weeks ago after their most important policy package, that included a redesign of health and social services leaning more toward privatization, was not passed. This move was not altruistic, as it was viewed by many outside of Finland, but mostly a desperate effort to save face before the upcoming parliamentary election.)
University education, while completely free of charge, is very limited, and many times the only people who are able to get through the difficult entrance exams are the people who are able to pay for expensive training courses. And in recent years, cuts have been made to the aid given to students. While higher education still is in theory available to all, the offspring of wealthy or academic parents have a better chance of accessing it, and this trend can have long-lasting effects. Income inequality is slowly on the rise, and it can worsen if cuts to education budgets continue.
From personal experience, I can say the Finnish school I attended was far from Narnia. Even though schools are public, the ones located in lower-income neighborhoods mostly gather kids from the same social class, keeping the poor and the wealthy with their own kind. In my school, bullying was a serious issue that nobody seemed to want to do anything about, as were alcohol and even drug use. I knew many girls who had their first abortions before the age of 15. Classes were quite big and difficult for teachers to control, and while the myth that Finnish children are better off because they don’t have homework is partially true (we had less than our American counterparts), it was not so much about not having homework but about teachers not being able to enforce discipline. I never in my 12 years of schooling actually did the homework I was given, and I wasn’t alone. In part to avoid the lengthy (and often costly) entrance process of Finnish universities, I moved to Argentina to get both my BA and MA.
The Finnish education system also tries to level everyone by keeping more talented children in the same classrooms with the ones that need more help. The problem is that it does this to the point of not really paying attention to anyone. Personally, as an above average student in anything involving reading, writing and languages, and a below average student in math and science, I could never find the support I needed for either my shortcomings or my talents.
Finland has also always been a top nation in mental health problems. Every Finn that has traveled the world has probably been asked more than once about our high suicide rate that, while significantly lower nowadays than in the top countries of Europe, is still higher than the European average, and carries a bad international reputation from the peak years of the ‘80s.
While drug use has traditionally not been as common as in other European countries, it has been on the rise. And alcoholism has always been a big issue for us Finns. Violence against women is also a serious problem in this country that Finns themselves often view as a feminist utopia: in a 2014 survey, Finland was found to be the second most violent country in Europe for women.
Internationally, the promotion of women’s rights, that used to always be at the forefront of Finland’s foreign policy, has also suffered a regression. Last year far-right Foreign Minister Timo Soini congratulated Argentina’s Senate in a blog post after they rejected a bill that would have legalized abortion. (In a country like Argentina with substantial structural inequality, not legalizing abortion puts people’s lives in serious risk. After the bill was rejected, several women have died from the complications of illegal abortions and 11-year-old rape victims forced to give birth.) Soon after this, MP’s of the governing right-wing coalition saved Soini in a no-confidence vote pushed by four opposition parties, giving a serious hit to the country’s reputation as a promoter of gender equality, disrespecting the nation’s long-lasting foreign policy in women’s development and putting party interest above the nation.
And while women in Finland are 57,4% of those with tertiary degrees, the wage gap still exists. Even in a country with long-lasting efforts to break the glass ceiling, women make 84 cents on the euro compared to men. In 2017, women accounted for a whopping 7,2% of CEO positions, and while the trend is toward an increase, executive teams remain mainly masculine.
Only a couple of months ago, the country also received the dubious honor of being one of the most racist countries in Europe when a European Commission study found that immigrants of African descent are discriminated against and that it’s common for them to receive threats, derogatory comments, and harassment. Hate crimes have also increased in recent years as asylum seekers from the Middle East have reached the country, according to a report from the Ministry of the Interior.
Even those famous baby boxes seem to not be magical: while it was widely misunderstood that the simple box filled with supplies for the newborn would help lower child mortality, the real reason was that receiving the baby box required of the mother and the baby to go through the pre- and postnatal checkups. It is not the box per se that saves women and babies, it’s going to the doctor to monitor pregnancies and make sure any problems are taken care of as soon as they arise. And if social security and health care standards are lowered as a result of the country veering even more to the political right, even this accomplishment will be lost.
So, maybe Finland is a happy place to live, especially for those who are lucky enough to have been born in the right social position. White, native men seem to be the luckiest ones, as they are in many other countries. Women still struggle with the same issues they do in other places in the world, and immigrants are at risk of experiencing discrimination. Policies put in place by right-wing governments distort the Nordic welfare state argument, and education cuts are set to deepen social problems in the long run.
What the hell am I doing here?
In comparison to Finland, Argentina might seem like an odd choice for a place to live, and sometimes it’s still hard for me to explain why I decide to stay here. After all, it’s not easy making ends meet with 47% annual inflation. But while the Happiness Report seems to document and rank a certain level of development combined with a social justice perspective, it also draws a highly eurocentric model and makes us forget about our own responsibility in the problems other nations face, especially in economic terms. It makes us think all nations should follow the same path to success. And it helps us look down on those who haven’t been able to make it, even if the exploitation of developing countries by the top “happiest” industrialized nations is what pushed them down the path of inequality in the first place.
Rankings like these also fuel our sense of superiority and make us see ourselves as better than others, which gives new arguments to the highly nationalist segments of the population that want to keep countries like Finland “pure” and close their borders to immigrants and asylum seekers arriving from war-torn regions. Since we’re the best, why should we share our good fortune with others?
They also often give the public in Finland a false sense of security, making the middle class close their eyes to the problems we still face and giving decision-makers like those of the right-wing coalition the permission to draw back on the progressive policies the country’s good reputation and standard of living were built on, such as education and health care. We’re already number one so why try harder, right?
All this combined with the tendency of people in developed countries to exaggerate even the smallest setbacks. #Firstworldproblems is a real thing. But no matter how developed or undeveloped a nation is, your happiness living there is completely subjective. And being grateful for what you have while being empathetic with others is key in finding that happiness.
A ranking like this is good publicity for a small country like Finland, especially if the measures that have raised the quality of life there (education, social security, etc.) are taken seriously and promoted in the 21st century and not pushed down as they have been of late. But it for sure is not a way to determine how happy a person would be living in any given country. Happiness is not about where you live, or the GDP per capita, even if these factors have a big influence on the possibilities you are presented with, something we often take for granted in the developed countries. Because, I think as I sip my coffee in the Sunday morning sun while I’m writing this on the balcony of my Buenos Aires apartment (where I congratulate myself for a “good deal” when my rent increases only 13% every semester), happiness is about how you view the world around you.