Are you happy? If so, why? I ask this question because for the 6th year in a row the United Nations World Happiness Report has ranked Finland as the happiest nation on earth, despite opinions to the contrary expressed by its very own citizens.
“I wouldn’t say that I consider us very happy,” said Nina Hansen, a Fin who spoke to the NYTIMES about her country’s joyful distinction. As a matter of fact, she adds, “I’m a little suspicious of that word, actually.”
Suspicious about happiness? How about just embracing it? But it seems that the term happy is too nebulous a concept for the Finnish nature to subscribe to. Which is exactly what the TIMES found out when they spoke to many of Nina’s fellow countrymen about how they perceived themselves in light of the Happiness Report’s release. Specifically, that “rather than happy they were more likely to characterize Fins as quite gloomy, a little moody” or not given to unnecessary smiling,”
Is there a language problem here? Don’t we all know what happiness is? Everyone – but the Finns, that is?
‘It turns out even the happiest people in the world aren’t that happy,” reports The TIMES.“They are something more like content,” says the paper.
Hm. Contentment versus Happiness. There is a difference, isn’t there? Or do the Finns offer an interesting lesson in semantics, where all roads eventually lead to the same place? On its face, the idea of contentment runs completely counter to how I define happiness, which resembles something akin to a bubbling euphoric state. An unrealistic, if not exhausting goal, to be sure. But one worth pursuing and adequately defining. I remember an ex boyfriend asking me after we had broken up “Are you happy?” I instantly answered in the affirmative. But upon reflection, I don’t really know if I was that happy. Or just happier without him.
In search of an answer to what makes us happy I asked some friends what made them happy. Most answered similarly. They valued love, sports, good health, family and friends. No one (except me) associated a fabulous wardrobe and fine dining with heightened happiness. Just kidding. I know those are pleasures and not defining characteristics of happiness, but they are fun nonetheless.
“I don’t think you can ask us a question like that,” one friend told me. Why? “We don’t have a lot to worry about,” she answered. Point well taken, because, neither do the Finns. And that is one of two reasons why they feel so content with their lives.
The Finnish government provides a huge safety net for its citizens. Finns know they will never starve. Will always have a roof over their heads as well as access to medical care. And will be able to give their children a quality education. One person the TIMES spoke to felt so grateful that she could actually pursue her love of art without worrying about the next paycheck. And that kind of confidence in a guaranteed quality lifestyle takes away a lot of the heavy pressure other nations feel everyday.
More insight into the Finnish way of life came from a correspondence between the TIMES and Arto O Salonen, a Finnish professor who has extensively studied well-being in Finnish society.
“Fins,” said Salonen, describing the second fundamental reason Finns are content, “derive satisfaction from leading sustainable lives and perceive financial success as being able to identify and meet basic needs. In other words,” he wrote in an email, “when you know what is enough, you are happy.”
Enough is not a word I would ever use to describe Americans who idolize the likes of billionaire beauties like the Kardashians. But maybe it is something to aspire to.
I have a home-Enough.
A closet full of clothes. Enough.
A car. Enough.
Good reading material. Enough.
How you define ENOUGH may be subjective but recognizing that it exists may go a long way to increasing your happiness quotient.
The NYTimes also found that the Finns the paper spoke to said they do recognize how privileged they are and that prevents them from complaining that much. They actually feel guilty if they start to moan about anything given their relatively “easy” lives. So even the happiest people on earth fight with their spouses or bosses or struggle with illness and loneliness so contentment doesn’t guarantee pure peace.
“Maybe it isn’t that Finns are so much happier than everyone else, ” says the TIMES. ” Maybe it’s that their expectations for contentment are more reasonable, and if they aren’t met, in the spirit of SISU, they persevere.”
SISU, which reflects the national character of Finland, according to the TIMES, “roughly translates to grim determination in the face of hardship,” such as the country’s long winters.”
“We don’t whine,” One Finn told the paper. “We just do.”
In the spirit of living wise, maybe the Finns make up in calmness what we sacrifice for ambitious and passionate pursuits.
But as the USA does not even rank in the top ten of the world’s happiest nations-we are 15th-maybe we could learn something from our contented Nordic neighbors.