“Why is nobody smiling around here,” my Norwegian friend asked me when, during his visit, we walked along the main street of my hometown Helsinki, the capital of the world’s happiest country.
Finland’s high life satisfaction score in the annual World Happiness Report paints the picture of a joyful Nordic society. Yet, the high depression rates and cases of mental illness in the country indicate that Finns do not embody that happiness in all aspects.
Thus, the results of the report require careful interpretation, since they do not directly reflect the populations’ emotional well-being but focuses on material standards of living.
Happiness as a material condition
The World Happiness Report compares the quality of life across countries mainly by measuring standards of living on GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.
For three consecutive years now, Finland obtained the world’s highest scores, which is due to comparatively high quality of institutions, reliable and large welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, a well-functioning democracy, as well as individual freedoms and social trust.
While measuring life satisfaction on these socioeconomic criteria, the report shifts the focus away from happiness as a psychological and mental condition.
Co-editor John Helliwell emphasized that the study does not concentrate on emotions. While the measured material factors of happiness predict peoples’ life satisfaction, they do not accurately indicate features of peoples’ psychological well-being. The latter can pose a challenge for Finns.
Happiness as emotional condition in Finland
Life satisfaction and happiness, when assessed through indicators of mental health, portray Finland differently than the World Happiness Report.
According to the OECD’s study in 2019, the rate of mental illnesses in Finland is 18.8%, the highest of all EU countries, which have a collective average of 17.3%. The most prevalent mental disorders in the country are depression and alcohol abuse.
Domestically, depression has been a topic of discussion, since depressive disorders have occurred frequently in the past decades.
Last year, the national broadcast Yle reported that depression was the most common reason for disability pensions granted by the state. One explanation for this is the comparatively high reported rate of domestic abuse and violence against women.
According to Yle in 2014, 47% of the female population in Finland reported to have experienced some sort of violence, often times at home, which presents the second highest rate in the EU.
One could argue that cases of disclosed gender violence are more numerous in countries like Finland, where people have high trust in justice institutions. While this partially explains the high reported rates of the country’s gender violence, women are at much greater risk to become a victim of domestic abuse in Finland than in other Nordic countries, which have very similar rates of trust in institutions.
Alcohol abuse and depression rates
The other common mental illness in Finland pertains to alcohol disorders. The OECD reported that drug and alcohol use disorders affect 4% of the Finnish population, which is substantially higher than the European average of 2.4%.
The country’s high alcohol consumption and the related depression rates are not a new phenomenon, and they are often explained by the dark and cold climate conditions. However, that does not justify why Finland’s rates of alcohol disorders and depression differ from those in other Nordic countries with the same natural conditions, and why to “drink like a Finn” has become a popular saying in the neighboring countries.
One should note that, due to successful reforms in the Finnish mental health system, the numbers of mental illnesses have significantly decreased in the past decades.
In 1990, the number of annual suicides exceeded 1500, while Statistics Finland reported that there were only 824 cases registered in 2017.
The World Happiness Report explicitly mentions that perceptions about the exceptionally high rates of Finnish suicides and the related mental illnesses are commonly based on outdated information and tend to exaggerate the current situation.
Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that the suicide rate in Finland remains above the EU average, and recent studies show that alcoholism and domestic abuse are still prevalent. These problems are not resolved as the World Happiness Report or other surveys may lead us to believe.
The difficulty of measuring subjective well-being
For a small part, the World Happiness Report also relies on the subjective perception of people’s well-being based on the Gallup World Poll.
This global survey ranks Finland among the top countries on self-estimated happiness. In addition, several other subjective surveys report high overall life satisfaction in Finland as well.
However, subjective surveys do not always reveal Finns’ emotional well-being, because people with mental health problems often report feeling happy in general.
Moreover, scholar Lepistö’s study suggests that victims of family violence in Finland tend to underreport their need for help or any dissatisfaction in their lives in general.
These kinds of overstatements of overall satisfaction may be the case for a large share of Finns, whose culture does not encourage them to seek assistance. While the impact of dominant cultural norms in Finnish society are difficult to measure, research indicates that there certainly are implications.
The country’s social environment promotes strong agency and independence and discourages the individual from showing vulnerability and weakness. Psychological studies indicate that feeling comfortable with showing weakness may also explain individual tendencies to escapism reflected in high alcohol consumption and suicide rates.
In conclusion, we see that a population’s happiness is difficult to assess, and that social science research can define happiness in different ways. The World Happiness Report mainly measures socioeconomic factors of life satisfaction, which predict peoples’ overall well-being, but do not necessarily reflect the emotional dimension of happiness.
Therefore, one should be mindful about the report’s strong focus on the material elements, which do not conceptualize happiness as the emotion-based, positive state of mind as many might define it.
Studies that measure happiness through more subjective surveys can be problematic in their own ways. We can, however, say that the cases of mental illness in Finland still occur comparatively frequently. This should not be overlooked, even if the country is known to be the world’s happiest.
So, to be precise, Finland is objectively one of the best environments to live in. But does this mean that people are happy and smiling on the streets of Helsinki? Not as much as one might assume.