If you can’t buy happiness, perhaps you should move to Helsinki. Finland has emerged from a 10-year economic depression to be ranked by the UN last week as the happiest place to live on the planet. The most important factor in Finland topping the UN’s happiness ranking is the country’s history of equality. It has managed to strike an amicable balance between the sexes, between workers and bosses, and within the education and welfare systems. An equal society can bond together to survive the bad times when so many countries pull themselves apart.
At the turn of the century Finland was riding high. It boasted one of the world’s most successful tech companies – Nokia – and a had a well-deserved reputation for embracing the internet revolution. It had escaped from the shadow of the Soviet Union to become a robust neighbour to Russia.
Then Nokia found itself on the wrong side of the smartphone revolution, following the launch of Apple’s iPhone. Slow to react, it went into terminal decline. After the financial crisis hit, Finland was unable to recover.
By 2016, and after five years of declining national income, the economy had stabilised. Last year the bounce-back finally took hold and the economy is estimated to have grown by 3.2%. This year the country’s largest bank, OP Financial Group, says gross domestic product is expected to keep up the pace of expansion at 3.3%.
Yet this recovery takes Finland back only to where it was before the financial crisis. The UK, by contrast, bounced back to its 2008 peak in 2014. The US recovery was even quicker. So why, when the UK, the US and many other European countries have contended with huge populist waves that have culminated in a vote of no confidence in their ruling political elites, has Finland remained happy?
There is balance between the sexes, between workers and bosses, and within the education and welfare systems
A state education system that shepherds all children through to 18 without the need for selective or private schooling has for many years kept the country at or near the top of the rankings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
During the 1990s, research and development in Finland was around the highest in the developed world, at 4% of GDP; while it has slipped back to just below 3%, it remains among the best in Europe. The health service and welfare programmes remain universal, even if not quite as generous as they once were. Its state broadcaster is ranked alongside the BBC as among the most innovative in Europe.
Tech companies such as the games studio Supercell, creator of Clash of Clans, has taken over where Nokia left off, paying more than €800m in tax and producing seven of Finland’s top-10 income tax payers in 2016. Not that Nokia has disappeared. It is still a major manufacturer and the largest employer, with 102,000 staff, followed by escalator maker Kone. The salaries of the best-paid 10,000 or so workers are published for all to see.
All these areas of Finnish life exemplify a cooperative spirit that commentators say is born of the harsh climate. The cold forces people to be independent and overcome inhospitable conditions. It also forces them to come together to achieve things, nurturing a degree of neighbourliness that extends into public life and state policies.
Nevertheless, the period of economic depression has been scarring. The rise of the far-right True Finns party, which elected an anti-immigration hardliner as its leader last year, is evidence of that.
The conservatives who control the coalition government were the most vocal critics of a bailout for Greece, and are currently pushing through parliament steep cuts in healthcare that will force more Finns to go private. This move, which may dent the happiness figures, is in response to one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Europe.