Is Finland really the happiest country? Correcting five misunderstandings of what the rankings reveal
So, for the sixth year in a row, Finland is world’s happiest country, based on the annual ranking of World Happiness Report. Yippee-ki-yay!
While such stability starts to be boring, Finland’s constant success has meant that I – as one of the leading well-being experts from Finland – have given interviews to media across the world from New York Times, BBC, and New Scientist to Le Monde and Wired Japan. In these 40+ interviews, I’ve noticed that certain misunderstandings keep repeating themselves from year to year.
To help interpret what it means that Finland is the happiest in the world, here’s five most common misunderstandings about what the results mean – and what they don’t mean:
- The whole ranking is based on one single question
Every year, it seems that half of the articles in the media misreport how the ranking is calculated. They talk about how the ranking is based on factors such as social support, income, health, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption. While these are factors that potentially can make people happy – and thus explain why people in some countries are happier than in others – they are not happiness as such.
Happiness is about a person’s own feelings and how they see their own life. Accordingly, the happiness ranking is based on this one single question:
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
Some thousand people from each country answer this question. An average is calculated – and that average is the happiness score for the given country.
- It’s not about Finland. It’s about the Nordics.
The happiness ranking is based on a representative sample from each country answering the same question. From politics we know that the opinion polls before elections always have their biases due to two key factors:
1) A sample of thousand people never perfectly represents the whole country introducing a margin of error compared to what the whole population would answer.
2) There can be response biases such as people in certain cultures being more prone to use extreme options (zeros and tens) in surveys or other cultural factors that lead certain countries to have slightly higher or lower averages than what they should have.
This year, the happiness report helpfully includes confidence intervals for the rankings, which reveal that Denmark’s position is somewhere between 2 to 4, Iceland’s 2 to 7, and Sweden’s 2 to 9, demonstrating the uncertainties in the results. While Finland with its average happiness of 7.80 has a small gap to the next countries – Denmark at 7.59 and Iceland at 7.53 – I would not read too much into that difference of 0.21 on a scale from 0 to 10.
But what is striking from the charts is the consistent success of the Nordic countries. The five Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland – are all in the top 7 of the world. In fact, for the whole ten years when World Happiness Report has been published, the Nordic countries have constantly been in the top 10. So, when searching for an explanation for Finland’s success, I would focus on examining what the Nordic countries have done right compared to other countries.
- It’s not about some cozy cultural habits, It’s about the institutions.
When Denmark topped the rankings, media went crazy about ‘hygge’ a Danish word for coziness – think blankets, armchairs, and candles. When Finland outranked Denmark, similar stories were written about Finnish sauna culture and the mystical national characteristics called ‘sisu’.
However, the real reasons for Finland’s and Denmark’s high rankings are more boring: It’s the high-quality institutions that explain the high rankings. That’s what we found out when we reviewed the scientific literature on the topic in a chapter published in World Happiness Report a few years ago.
When looking at rankings on lack of corruption, freedom of the press, rule of law, or quality of democracy, Finland and the other Nordic countries are consistently among the best performing countries in the world. The institutions simply work in Finland: Citizens feel that their voice is heard, and the institutions deliver what they are supposed to deliver.
Combine this with the welfare policies for which the Nordic countries are famous for – free health care, free education, relatively good unemployment benefits and pensions – and you start to get the picture: These are countries that take care of their citizens. When facing various challenges in life, the people can count on the institutions to take care of them. Not perfectly of course, but better than almost anywhere else in the world.
- It’s not about making people happy. It’s about removing sources of unhappiness.
The government can’t make citizens happy. But well-functioning institutions and welfare services can remove many sources of unhappiness from people’s lives. Finland is not the happiest in the world because there would be more extremely happy people in Finland than elsewhere. Instead, because the institutions serve the people so well, there is less extremely unhappy people in Finland and other Nordic countries than anywhere else in the world.
Instead of saying ‘Finland is the happiest country in the world’, a more accurate way of putting it would be to say that ‘Finland is the country where the least amount of population is miserable.’ And this is thanks to the institutions.
- Happiness ranking is not just fun triviality, citizen happiness should be a serious political goal
For too long, policy-makers have focused on economic metrics when assessing the success and progress of the nation. While a functioning economy is an important factor in removing poverty, the richer the nation, the less people’s happiness and life quality is dependent on economics. Accordingly, the politicians and policy-makers should remember the ultimate goal of politics, already articulated by Adam Smith in 1759:
“All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them.”
Right now, the happiness ranking is too often treated as a fun triviality – reported in ‘lifestyle’ rather ‘politics’ sections in newspapers. Instead, we should take the happiness indexes as seriously as we take metrics like GDP. Rise of citizen happiness should be celebrated, while a drop in average happiness should be treated as a national crisis, meriting serious attention.
In the end, it is no surprise that the same countries that rank high in various democracy indexes, rank also high in happiness indexes: Given functioning democracy, those at the top have to care about those at the bottom. Too many countries are built to serve those in power, coming to ignore the well-being of a large part of the population.
So, the ultimate secret to Finnish happiness is simple but hard to put in practice: Build institutions that truly serve the citizens at large, not just a narrow elite within it.
Martela, F., Greve, B., Rothstein, B., & Saari, J. (2020). The Nordic Exceptionalism: What Explains Why the Nordic Countries are Constantly Among the Happiest in the World. In J. F. Helliwell, R. Layard, J. Sachs, & J.-E. De Neve (Eds.), World Happiness Report 2020 (pp. 129–146). Sustainable Development Solutions Network. https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/the-nordic-exceptionalism-what-explains-why-the-nordic-countries-are-constantly-among-the-happiest-in-the-world/