A Woman From The Happiest Country In The World Tells Us What We're Doing Wrong

Illustration: anna sudit
We're always looking to northern Europe for lessons for living a better life. Whether it's the Danish concept (and overdone lifestyle buzzword) of hygge, Sweden's lagom, or Norway's koselig, we've long been sold the idea that the secret to happiness lies in living more like a Dane, Swede or a Norwegian.
But what about Finland – a country associated with Lapland, metalheads and a dry sense of humour? The country has just been named the happiest nation on Earth, overtaking Norway and jumping four places to pole position in the UN's annual ranking of subjective wellbeing.
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The 2018 World Happiness Report, which asks more than 1,000 people in over 150 countries to rate their happiness on a scale from one to 10, also rated Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland in the top five. All scored well for factors including economic strength (measured in GDP per capita), social support, life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.
The US and UK, meanwhile, did not fare particularly well, coming in at a lowly 18th and 19th respectively, with the UK's position remaining stable and the US dropping a worrying five places due to its high levels of obesity, opioid epidemic and depression.
This year, the UN also measured happiness among immigrants for the first time and interestingly, there was a strong correlation between their happiness and that of the locally born population, with the top 10 happiest nations scoring the highest for immigrant happiness and Finland coming out on top.
So what have the Finns got right, and what can the rest of us learn from them? We asked a woman who's been living there for six years, 29-year-old Penny Polak, a marketing specialist and beauty blogger, to lift the lid on the country's secrets to a happy life.
"The healthcare system is great and you get five weeks of paid holiday"
"For quality of life, I'm not at all surprised that Finland would rank at the top of the list," Polak says. "The healthcare system is great, education is free, you get five weeks of paid holiday every year, sick leave is paid, maternity leave is guaranteed and paternity leave is encouraged."
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Indeed, Finland is the only country in the developed world where dads spend more time with their school-age kids than mums, according to a recent report from the OECD. Men spend eight minutes more with their school-aged offspring each day than women. The country has also made huge leaps in recent years towards tackling homelessness, which highlights where its priorities lie.
"It's rare to hear about someone trying to 'play the system' or using state resources without any intention of eventually finding a job or a way to provide for themselves," says Polak. "I see the welfare state as a safety net – it's great to have in case I fall, and I know that I can take those career risks without worrying about being a burden on my family or falling through the cracks and finding myself in a compromised situation."
"There are very few barriers to achievement"
Penny Polak.
Far from a "nanny state" creating dependency among the population, Polak believes state assistance makes the Finnish population more independent, "because they have the freedom to go after what they want without fearing they'll end up on the streets if they fail and lose everything."
She continues: "I feel like I have a lot of opportunity and it's up to me to create a happy life for myself. I don't see a lot of obstacles in the way of that and feel that I have the resources to create a life I want."
"An egalitarian education system"
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As Polak says, all schools are free, which also partly explains why many Finns believe the sky's the limit. Schools aren't allowed to charge fees and there are no private universities, so there's an egalitarian atmosphere when it comes to education and people feel they can achieve regardless of their background.
Finland therefore offers its population – and expats – a pretty sweet deal when it comes to tertiary education. Tuition fees don't exist, which will be a novel concept for anyone from the UK or US. Polak originally moved there to complete a (free) master's degree and was even given a monthly living stipend of €560 for the privilege.
"People are happy to pay their way"
Like the rest of Scandinavia, Finland has high levels of taxation but people generally recognise how they benefit from the system and don't complain about having to contribute. "I'm very happy to pay the level of taxes I pay for what I get, and have gotten, in return," says Polak. "I might feel different if I made more money because I'd be taxed a lot more, but I think the overall feeling in Finland is that our taxes are used for the betterment of society.
"It's not like in the US, where you're constantly being reassured that your tax dollars are 'at work'. Paying taxes is also very easy in Finland, a stark contrast to the nightmare that is filing taxes in the US."
"It's a safe place to be"
Many parents feel free to send their primary-school age children off to school by themselves and, as a woman, Polak describes feeling generally "very safe" there. "When something happens, it's in the news and everyone hears about it. So, while you do read about crime and bad things do happen, it's not nearly on the same level as some of the other countries I've lived in. I feel safe walking alone, even at night – sometimes I have to remind myself that it's a better idea not to walk alone."
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"People don't really care about social class"
Class differences as signified through language and accent aren't as evident in Finland as they are in a country like the UK, for example, which is notoriously obsessed with wealth and social standing. "There's very little classism in Finland," says Polak. "Even if people do have money, they don't really show it off the way people do in other parts of the world. Every year, Finland's top earners' tax receipts are made public in major newspapers and tabloids.
"It's almost like it's frowned upon to make too much money, and you don't become famous just for having money. The terms 'socialite' or 'it girl' don't really have a place in Finland." That's as good a reason to emigrate as any.
But it's not all sunshine and rainbows
"It's definitely more difficult to meet people in Finland, which does make living here more challenging," Polak admits. "I also think there's a lot of room for improvement as far as diversity goes. Finland is a pretty homogeneous country, which probably contributes to why it does so well in areas like education. But I think that's starting to change."
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