Trust, happiness, and Coronavirus – Why Finland is both the happiest country in the world and well prepared for the epidemic

Finland was ranked happiest country in the world for a third year in a row. This can help us understand why Finnish society will be especially robust in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

World Happiness Report ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world. Right now, when people’s lives and livelihoods are seriously threatened, mere happiness might sound unimportant. But the same root causes that explain Finnish happiness can explain why Finnish society will most likely be exceptionally resilient in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic.

Since the inauguration of the World Happiness Report in 2012, the Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland – have consistently resided in the top 10, with Finland the happiest three times, Denmark twice, and Norway once. This year is no exception, with the seven happiest countries including all five Nordic countries as well as Switzerland and the Netherlands.

In this years report, you’ll find an article written by me and my Nordic colleagues, professors Bent Greve, Bo Rothstein, and Juho Saari, aiming to explain this ’Nordic exceptionalism’. Through an examination of the scientific literature, we identified three key factors explaining why people in the Nordic countries are so happy with their lives:

First, institutional quality is exceptionally high in the Nordic countries. It consists of two factors: Democratic quality is about access to power involving factors such as free press, free elections, and political stability, while delivery quality is about exercise of power involving rule of law, lack of corruption, and government effectiveness. Only countries to receive full 100 points in Freedom House’s index of political rights and civil liberties are Finland, Norway, and Sweden. And research shows that institutional quality can be as important predictor of national happiness as GDP.

Second, welfare state generosity is about how well the country takes care of its citizens in terms of pensions, unemployment benefits, and income maintenance for ill or disabled. The offering of such benefits has been found to be significantly associated with people’s life satisfaction. And the Nordic countries are famous for their welfare state model, with public health care, free education and relatively generous benefits for those facing various setbacks in life. The Nordics probably don’t have more extremely happy citizens than other countries. Instead, the state taking care of its citizens means that there are less extremely unhappy people in these countries.

Third, sense of trust within a country is robustly correlated with citizen happiness. Both trust in fellow citizens and trust in institutions seem to be important for people’s happiness. Again, Nordic countries are characterized by exceptionally high levels of trust, with 91 percent of Finnish citizens being satisfied with the president, 86 per cent trusting the police, and 79 per cent of citizens being happy to pay their taxes. A recent study examined social cohesion in terms of three factors: how much people experience connectedness to other people, how good are their social relations, and how much they focus on the common good. The study found that each of these three dimensions was associated with higher citizen happiness. And the three Nordic countries included in the analysis – Denmark, Finland, and Sweden – occupied the top three positions of this index.

The secret of Nordic happiness thus seems to be a virtuous circle where peoples’ trust in each other and institutions leads to trustworthy institutions, which further enhances people’s sense of trust. When well-functioning and democratic institutions are able to provide citizens extensive benefits and security, people tend to trust these institutions and each other, which leads them to vote for parties that promise to preserve the welfare model. As economist Jeffrey Sachs noted in a recent conference: The Nordic countries are probably the only countries where a politician can run a campaign promising more taxes and get elected.

How will Finland and the other Nordic countries cope with the raising wave of the coronavirus epidemic? There are several factors affecting the severity of the virus outbreak such as the timing of the various shut-downs and the availability of relevant tests and oxygen ventilators that don’t have anything to do with national happiness. Furthermore, some experts have speculated that cold weather could help the virus spread, making the Nordic countries more vulnerable.

However, beyond these factors, the strength of the society will also play a key role. With this I mean how the citizens will react to the exceptional situation. When times get tough, will people respond with every-man-for-himself mentality, looking out only after themselves, buying more guns, looking for ways to profit from other’s misery, and hoarding whatever resources they can get hold on? Also, will people trust the government and respect the commands and orders coming from authorities as regards how to behave and how to help stop spreading the virus? If trust in government is low, people are more prone to ignore any precautionary measures, and more prone to fall prey to various misinformation and conspiracy theories being spread.

This is where the high societal trust of the Nordic societies kicks in. While all sorts of opinions can naturally be found on social media, the overall reaction in Finland has been one emphasizing trust and unity. When the president or the prime minister have held a public speech, people of all stripes – also those voting for opposing parties – have pledged their loyalty and urged everyone to commit to the actions suggested by the government. Almost overnight, various campaigns and platforms have emerged that aim to provide help to various vulnerable groups and support those whose livelihood has been most affected by the lock-down: New neighborhood food delivery campaigns, online concerts to support artists, gift card campaigns to support barbers, masseurs and small restaurants, and other grassroot measures to help each other are emerging everyday.

The Nordics are high-trust societies. This plays a big part in explaining their happiness. But it makes them also strong and robust in facing a crisis. Some research has actually indicated that high levels of social capital seem to make people’s well-being more resilient to various national crises.

It can’t be predicted how many people will get hospitalized or die in Finland and other Nordic countries. But the high levels of trust and social capital mean that no matter the severity of the crisis, people will have a sense that we are in this together; by being united we will get through this. This makes it easier to engage in coordinated action and more likely that people will help each other during the crisis. This will also mean that after the worst is over, the Nordic countries will emerge from the crisis even more united and committed to the common good than before.

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