What contributes to happiness? Whose happiness are we talking about? In this article I’d like to offer some gut-level observations not only on a generic level as a Nordic citizen, but also as a Finn who has lived and worked in six European countries to date. I’ll then elaborate on a personal level on a few selected areas. I’m obviously not an expert in happiness, but along with loneliness I do find the topic interesting enough to write about.
A couple of things made me write this article: firstly, the notion that Finnish people are the happiest people in the world, for the sixth year in the row (2023). Secondly, there was a post on LinkedIn last year that caught my attention. It was about two studies that found that people in the Nordic countries feel the least lonely in Europe. These two things didn’t make much sense to me, so I started reflecting on what looked like a paradox.
Happiness could be related to one or more of the following factors, in no particular order:
- Your expectations for yourself and others
- Your social circle
- Your background
- Your ambitions for your future self
- Whether you’re doing more of what energises you
- Your willingness to acknowledge also the dark side (no light without shadow)
- Your relation to the nature and all the Earthlings
- Your eating habits
- How much and often you exercise
- How mindful of the present moment you are
- What you know and what you don’t know
- Your ability to make decisions and act
- Your ability to say No, so that you can say Yes to things that matter
- How much you trust the system (institutions, society etc.)
- How secure you feel (both within yourself, and in your community)
- Your awareness of the habit loop, and how your habits either help or hinder you
- How much you’ve been exposed to other countries and cultures
- Your willingness to accept that we’re all same but different
I could go on, and of course there are many other factors I’m not aware of. For you, the list is probably a bit different. Happiness is a balancing act, a by-product of some action. Let’s zoom into a few areas in this list.
Finns: the Happiest People in the World
So, how can the “happiest people in the world” elect a right-wing, racist government in 2023—“a cabinet of horrors”, as Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany put it? As a Finn living abroad, and as a human being, I find it incomprehensible. Perhaps it’s the result of the overall polarisation and bigotry in social media and in the world, reflected also in Finland. This is very unlikely to increase happiness for anyone.
On the other hand, Finns (along with other Nordic people) have a high level of trust in democratic institutions. However, blindly trusting national authorities—like the Swedes did during the COVID-19 pandemic—can be a big mistake, undermine democracy, and even turn into a catastrophe. That’s what happened in Sweden, with still no one taking responsibility for the failed pandemic response, and with no lessons learnt.
The “Dark Side”
I’d argue that in Finland it’s more socially acceptable to not feel well, and be vocal about mental health issues, compared with the other countries I’ve lived in. Can this genuine and bittersweet attitude be one possible explanation for the “happiest people” result? Just a thought.
Nordic People: the Least Lonely People in Europe
Your Social Circle
Why would Nordic people feel less lonely than the rest of Europe, according to the surveys? I believe loneliness is a real issue also in the Nordic countries. However, Nordic people probably compensate for their loneliness by having a closer relation to nature, and spending time with the family and a small circle of friends from childhood and early adulthood. Most Nordic people are individualists who don’t make or need any new friends after those early years, compared to Central and Southern Europe where people are much more open to new friendships also as adults.
Individualism vs. Solidarity
The personal “gains” from the Nordic individualism that’s supposed to set us “free” are shadowed by less solidarity for common good. This in turn enforces isolation and loneliness, and discourages taking responsibility. Even if you’re “free” to be individualistic in the Nordics, loneliness becomes real if you’re acting outside the boundaries and norms of what is accepted by the collective. It’s hard to break social norms. You’ll feel more lonely in the Nordics if you stick out from the crowd.
Your Ambitions and Habits for Your Future Self
How do you see yourself in a few months’ or years’ time? Are you unhappy because of that perceived gap? This friction can lead to either analysis paralysis, or to action via new habits. The bigger the gap, the more frustrated you can become. This is where both mindfulness (acceptance) and habits (bringing focus and structure) can help. Do what energises you.
The Social Aspect
Then there’s the social aspect to happiness too. One of the best happiness advice I’ve seen is this: always be useful. Here are some specific examples of me striving for being useful:
- My mother has Alzheimer’s disease in an advanced state. This summer I’ve legally become her guardian, to help and support both her and my father in various ways. Luckily my work provides the flexibility for this arrangement. Helping them makes me happy, but at the same time immensely sad (remember, every coin has two sides). Observing my parents, I wonder if they’re happy in their own way?
- As Scrum Master I’m listening and observing my distributed agile teams, and doing my best to remove obstacles, ask reflective questions, coach and lead retrospectives, with a goal that these teams become happier, more resilient, and more high-performing.
- Finding passion/side projects that have an impact.
You define what happiness means to you. In this article I’ve reflected on some of the factors that, according to my experience, affect happiness. Living almost half of my life in several European countries has given me plenty of food for thought, improved my critical thinking, and widened my perspective. On the other hand, this new perspective—or we might call it awareness—is also making it harder for me to go back to the Nordic way of being: in the same Nordics where some of the happiest and least lonely people in the world live.