- Happy communities mitigate the abrasive implications of substantial differences in wealth and social prestige.
- Societies where most people are scrupulously honest are also ones where social trust is high.
- Spending time in a natural landscape induces calmness and lowers blood pressure.
Modern societies are very good at solving most of life's problems. Yet, they deviate from ancestral hunter–gatherer conditions in several ways that undermine happiness. Finland is an exception.
The Finns have evaluated themselves as the happiest on the planet for five years running. Their success in promoting subjective well-being can be interpreted as a reconstruction of critical features of the lives of subsistence foragers.
Low Social Comparison
We are learning that hunter–gatherer societies had become quite complex long before the agricultural revolution. Yet, most of our history as a species was likely spent in simple hunter–gatherer societies where each person was socially equal to others.
We are not about to revisit that classless society any time soon. However, happy communities are ones that mitigate the abrasive implications of substantial differences in wealth and social prestige.
In Finland, people who are extremely wealthy avoid flaunting their wealth through ostentatious lifestyles. Indeed, many continue to lead modest lifestyles. Some forgo luxury vehicles in favor of using public transportation.
If material success is downplayed, then each individual can be treated with more respect. Finns enjoy a cohesive society that is characterized by a high level of social trust. This ingredient is conspicuously absent in many advanced countries where crime rates are higher.
Honesty and Trust
How does one create social trust? The simple answer is that we trust people if they earn our trust. What does that mean exactly? It means that most people behave with impeccable honesty in the sense of respecting the property of others, for example.
This conclusion emerged from “dropped-wallet” experiments wherein the wallets are deliberately left on busy streets to investigate how many are returned to their owners. The Finns passed this test with flying colors. Nine-tenths of the wallets were returned.
Societies where most people are scrupulously honest are also ones where social trust is high. Consistent with this impression, crime rates are very low. If most people are honest and trustworthy, a person can let their guard down, and it is possible to address complete strangers as though they were friends. This makes for cohesive communities that pull together for their mutual benefit and engage in civic activities that improve the quality of life.
Connection to the Natural World
Another mainstay of happiness in Finland is the connections that people maintain with the natural world.
One can be close to nature in any country, but Finland has many natural advantages that draw people to its wild spaces, including the spectacle of the aurora borealis. Workers receive one month of annual vacation. Many choose to spend their time in remote locations, often in basic cabins that lack electricity, or even running water,
From one perspective, this annual downtime provides an opportunity to slow down and lead a lifestyle controlled by the rhythms of nature. Without electricity, one tends to sleep when it gets dark and rise with the sun. This means there is ample opportunity to get a good night's sleep.
Beyond these basic dynamics of a simpler lifestyle in the countryside, psychologists recognize that merely spending time in a natural landscape induces calmness and lowers blood pressure, This clearly has implications for health and happiness.
Ironically, Finns were mostly unaware of their own happiness until they ranked highest in surveys that combined subjective assessments with objective measures tapping prosperity and quality of life.
Taciturn But Contented
Residents of Finland often describe themselves as taciturn or reserved, They detest people sounding off about how good their own lives are. Despite their reserved demeanor, they nevertheless evaluate themselves as being extremely contented.
That contentment has at least three components that would resonate with a subsistence hunter–gatherer. They detest people who are ostentatious and blow their own trumpets, mirroring the lack of status distinctions in forager societies. They enjoy a high level of social trust because they inhabit a society where bad actors are immediately recognized as such and treated appropriately. Finally, they cherish their affinity with the natural world.