Why Are the Finns So Happy? Three Lessons We Can Learn

The 2020 World Happiness Report sheds light on the real predictors of happiness.

Posted Apr 25, 2020

According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Finland is – for the third year in a row – the happiest country in the world.  The United States, on the other hand, seems to be heading in the opposite direction:  after reaching a peak of 11 in 2012, we stand today at 18.  And as we are all struggling with navigating the tremendous stress of the current global pandemic, this seems like a perfect time to figure out what we can learn from the Finns.  After all, eventually we will return to some type of “new normal.” Why not aim for that new reality to shift us towards greater happiness?

Here are three key lessons we could take from Finland to achieve greater happiness.

First, reducing the gender gap boosts happiness.  Empirical research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies demonstrates that gender equity boosts happiness for men and women. This finding helps explain why people in countries with lower gender equality (such as Japan) report lower levels of life satisfaction than countries with greater gender equality (such as Denmark). Why? Well, as you might expect, gender equality is an especially strong predictor of happiness for women – who tend to benefit more for policies promoting equity – but men also benefit from such policies. In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats.  Finland’s strong emphasis on closing the gender gap – including providing new fathers with nine weeks of paternity leave at 70 percent of their salary – helps explain their consistently high ranking in the World Happiness Report. It is also the only country in the world in which fathers spend more time per day with their kids than do mothers (albeit by only 8 minutes a day).

Lindsey Multimedia Creator/Pexels
Maria
Source: Lindsey Multimedia Creator/Pexels

Second, money doesn’t buy happiness – but poverty really hurts it. You’ve probably heard about the famous 2010 study showing that more income is linked with more emotional well-being, but only up to a point. For those with incomes of about $75,000 and up, there is no happiness gain from more income. Though people who make more than $90,000 a year are nearly twice as likely to report feeling “very happy” as those who make less than $20,000, there’s basically no difference in happiness between those who make $50,000 and $89,999.  (Although a recent study did reveal that people at the very highest levels of wealth – those who earn at least $500,000 a year – are in fact extremely happy with their lives.)

But there’s a really important exception to the general rule that more money doesn’t bring more happiness. For people living below the poverty line, a lack of money can exacerbate daily life stressors, and make it very hard to find happiness. After all, it is impossible to feel happy when concerned about whether your children will have enough food to eat or your family will have heat this winter. One explanation for the Finn’s greater happiness is their strong social safety net: Finland’s poverty rate is one of the lowest in the world, and is half that of the rate in the United States. Adopting programs and policies to reduce poverty is therefore a fundamental step towards raising happiness levels; programs that give money to alleviate poverty directly lead to increases in happiness, in part because additional income reduces stress for people living in such conditions.    

Third, prioritize time over money. Most of us tend to think that having more money will bring more happiness. But as described, after our basic needs are met, what matters in terms of happiness is how we choose to spend our time. In studies involving both college students and older adults, people who report prioritizing their time over their money experience greater psychological well-being and life satisfaction. The benefits of spending money to save time are seen across cultures, and in people from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

And here, once again, the Finns understand and prioritize time over money, and undoubtedly experience greater happiness as a result. Countries in the European Union are required to give workers at least 20 days of paid vacation a year, and some countries mandate more. Finland provides 25 paid workdays off in addition to paid national holidays. The United States mandates none:  no paid vacation days or paid holidays.  In fact, we’re the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a group of 36 of the world’s wealthiest countries) that doesn’t require employers to give workers paid leave.

Pixabay/Pexels
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

There’s a wonderful short story by the German author Heinrich Böll about a wealthy tourist who comes across a fisherman taking a nap in his boat that precisely illustrates the value of prioritizing time over money. The tourist approaches the fisherman and urges him to continue fishing, pointing out that working harder could, over time, allow him to earn enough money to own multiple boats and have other people do the fishing for him. The fisherman asks why that should be his goal. The tourist responds, “Then, without a care in the world, you could sit here in the harbor, doze in the sun, and look at the glorious sea.”

Of course, that’s exactly what the fisherman is already doing. This story illustrates what considerable empirical research now demonstrates: we find more happiness by spending our days in ways that bring us joy than in the relentless pursuit of money. While the wealthy tourist encourages the fisherman to spend his time pursuing more and more money, the wise fisherman already understands that his true happiness comes from spending time sleeping in the sun.