In March, the UN published its most recent happiness survey, listing Finland as the happiest country in the world. If the statistic didn’t hold true before, it did for sure after the publication: Finns were elated to see their small country featured in big media.
The way Finnish people react to international success can reveal something inherently typical of our behaviour. We are happy to be noticed. No, more than that; we are pleasantly surprised. We have this belief that no one really remembers or cares about Finland much. Maybe it boils down to the stereotypical Finnish humility; we mind our own business, avoid bragging about our happiness, and if some strange success befalls us, we diminish our accomplishments by an embarrassed shrug. In a way, we may feel like we’re never good enough.
Us Finns have this saying: ‘Torilla tavataan.’ It literally translates as ‘let’s meet at the marketplace’. While it originally referred to the Kauppatori market square in Helsinki where Finns gathered to celebrate the World ice hockey championship in 1995, it has become the standard reaction anytime Finland succeeds or gets mentioned in foreign media. Winning the Eurovision song contest in 2006? Torilla tavataan. Finland getting nuked in South Park? Torilla tavataan. Spotting a Marimekko bag on a tourist in a different country? Torilla tavataan.
And being declared the happiest country in the world? You bet we met at the marketplace.
Everything they’ve said is true. Finland is a paradise. Our tap water is even better than our bottled water; our education (even a Master’s degree!) is free of charge; for many years, Finland has been said to be the number one in press freedom, general safety, greenness (both literal and figurative – as an expat, I miss recycling ridiculously much) and gender equality. Knowing all that, it isn’t a surprise that Finland would come to hold the title of the happiest country in the world. I truly think it might be the best country in the world to live in.
But there is something they are not telling you: the happiest country in the world is also one of the most depressed ones.
In general, the Nordic countries have a very high quality of life, but still they keep topping charts in suicide numbers and mental health issues, too. A Chilean friend asked me a tough question last year: How can the happiest country in the world also be the most depressed one?
I told him that I believe happiness and depression might not be mutually exclusive. It might be a little hard to explain, and I don’t have the definitive answer to that question. Many issues that Finns and many Nordics struggle with, like depression, anxiety and alcoholism, are illnesses of the mind. While the illness might affect all areas of life, it still doesn’t erase the framework of services that have been put to place to support a good life in Finland. With strong social security, maybe dealing with hard mental issues is slightly easier since, technically, you should be able to trust the society to not leave you homeless and alone with your problems. So while you might be suffering from mental issues, your overall quality of life would still be good.
This strange duality of happiness and misery has profoundly affected the Finnish character.
We love our humour dark and dry – I’ve once been told by an American that Finns don’t have a sense of humour, but that is likely because he could not understand it. Our jokes are not meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. They are macabre, matter-of-factly, often self-deprecating. And we tell our jokes with a straight face, often leaving foreigners wondering whether we were actually serious or not.
We don’t small talk. Foreign visitors to Finland often compliment us as some of the friendliest people they have met, but to explain this, refer to the first paragraphs – Finns love showing off Finland. With other Finns we often act very introverted, only coming out of our shell when we drink. But while we might not be great at chit-chat (unless it’s about weather, complaining about something, or complaining about the weather), our talk often runs deep. In my experience, once you’re friends with a Finn, they will reveal just what hides underneath.
We are honest and humble, the latter often to an annoying extent. We don’t like to brag because we feel like we’re not quite good enough to do so. We are quick to celebrate success, but with the ever-present pessimism ready to take over at the earliest inconvenience. In 2016, a Finnish singer Saara Aalto competed in the British X-Factor and came in second, but after her career had not taken off in a matter of months, newspaper columns were quick to declare her as a failure.
While Finland is a very progressive country, in some ways it is stuck in its past ways. Change is dangerous for a people who is always expecting the worst.
But, in another demonstration of duality, the national sense of pessimism is mirrored by the famous Finnish sisu. Sisu is a hard word to explain. It embodies tenacity and stubbornness, never giving up or giving in, standing your ground and bending but never breaking. It is why Finland was able to go to war with Russia and hold up. It is why Finland was one of the first countries in Europe to pay back all of its war debt. It is why we persist, even when times get tough.
Maybe that’s the answer to the question, only if the question is reversed: How can the most depressed country in the world also be the happiest?
By pure, stubborn will.
While we’re out here low-key apologizing for our existence, at the same time we are creating incredible inventions and making a name for ourselves. Did you know that Nokia, Linux and Angry Birds all come from Finland? The deadliest sniper in the history was Finnish (we can argue whether this is an actual accomplishment some other day). Finland has always put the quality of life of its citizens before anything else. Free education, baby boxes, strong social security and environmental consciousness set an example that many other countries could really follow.
We might be embarrassed to celebrate our success, but we are creating success nevertheless.
I am not going to sit here pretending that Finland’s perfect. No place is. But we got out of bed this morning, and we brushed our teeth and put on fresh clothes, and that’s already pretty good for the saddest happiest country in the world.