Unriddling Happiness: Why “Gloomy” Finns Beat High-Spending Americans  

By Thierry Malleret, economist

In the new World Happiness Report, the Scandinavian/Nordic countries—as always—dominate the top-ten list of happiest nations, with Finland taking the #1 spot again. But there are numerous countries (wealthy and highly developed) that simply don’t rank as high as one would expect. The US ranks 15th, the UK 19th, France is 21st, Italy 33rd (after Romania and Saudi Arabia) and Japan is 47th (after Nicaragua, Kazakhstan and Serbia). 

Malleret explores some key aspects of subjective wellbeing that may help unriddle this. If Finns question their #1 ranking and characterize themselves as “quite gloomy,” the word “sisu” captures their national culture and way of life, meaning: “determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness.” The saying that “happiness equals reality minus expectations” may explain Finland’s and other Scandinavian/Nordic countries’ high happiness levels. Other factors: satisfaction from leading sustainable lives and being connected to nature–and unlike so many Western nations, perceiving financial success as meeting basic needs. As a professor who has researched Finnish society recently wrote in The New York Times,When you know what is enough, you are happy.”  


Against the current, rather gloomy backdrop of deteriorating GDP growth and conflating macro issues (like polarization and fragmentation), it is perhaps unremarkable that the ranking of happiest countries on earth remains constant in this year’s World Happiness Report. Six factors play a predominant role in supporting life evaluations: (1) income, measured by GDP per capita; (2) health, measured by “healthy” life expectancy; (3) social support, or having someone to count on; (4) a sense of freedom to make key life decisions; (5) generosity, as in behaviours which benefit other people; (6) an absence of corruption.  

Accordingly, the nations we might expect to be the happiest (i.e.: where people experience the highest degree of subjective wellbeing) are generally those which combine robust economies, a good quality of life, and pro-social behaviors. This year (2023 results come with a 1-2-year lag), the 10 happiest countries are: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg and New Zealand. While invariably the Scandinavian/Nordic countries are among the top 10, there are other countries that do not rank where we might expect them to be. A few examples: the US ranks 15th, the UK 19th, France is 21st, Italy 33rd (after Romania and Saudi Arabia) and Japan is 47th (after Nicaragua, Kazakhstan and Serbia). Some cultural, psychological, or historical factors may possibly affect expectations regarding life evaluations, dragging these countries down in the ranking (as discussed below for Italy and France). It’s also possible that one of the six factors supporting life evaluations plays a predominant role in impacting the overall ranking (like health in the US – more below). The ranking of the least happy places on earth does not come as a surprise. They tend to be countries that are victims of conflicts (wars and civil wars), natural disasters, and much hardship. In terms of subjective evaluation of life satisfaction and wellbeing, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Afghanistan are the five worst ranked countries in 2023.  


Subjective wellbeing (happiness) is an aspiration, not something that can be obtained by actively pursuing it, nor a permanent state of being. As the World Happiness Report makes clear, subjective wellbeing is the outcome or by-product of other goals. It is therefore rather striking that every year for the past six years, the Finns have “captured” first place in the ranking of world happiness. Even more so considering that many Finns seem to be questioning their place at the very top of this league. They often see themselves as “quite gloomy” or “a bit moody.” 

The word “sisu” encapsulates the Finnish way of life. It is embedded in the national culture and roughly translates as “determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness,” epitomized by having to deal with harsh and long winters. The saying that happiness equals reality minus expectations may explain Finland’s performance. Even in adversity, the Finns are known to persevere without a word of complaint. It could thus be that they aren’t much happier than the French or the Italians, but simply that their expectations in terms of wellbeing or contentment are just more “reasonable” or “adjusted” to the reality of daily life. Many academic articles suggest that Finns derive happiness and satisfaction from leading sustainable lives and from being connected to nature. Contrary to many of their peers in the Western world, they tend to perceive financial success as being able to identify and meet basic needs. In the words of Professor Salonen (who has researched wellbeing in Finnish society, quoted in a recent article in The New York Times),when you know what is enough, you are happy.”  


The average American is much better off than his average fellow from the developed world (measured in terms of both GDP and income, per capita). Yet, in terms of other wellbeing measures, the average American is strikingly worse off. One would imagine that greater financial wellness (as reflected in average Americans’ formidable spending power) would translate into greater wellbeing (notably through better, healthier, longer lives), but this is not the case. Compared to its peers, the US has a terrible record of life expectancy that is also getting worse. A recent, much-commented-upon study shows that the average American has a health-adjusted life expectancy (the number of years one can expect to live without a disability) of 65, the same as someone born in Blackpool—the British city that epitomizes social decay and that has the lowest life expectancy in the UK. Comparing life expectancies across income distribution is even more revealing. Americans and Britons at the high end of income distribution (the top 1%) both have high and roughly similar life expectancies. However, across the rest of the income distribution, Americans die earlier than the British despite earning significantly more. The key reason for this discrepancy or anomaly is excess deaths among the young, the poor, and most vulnerable. Most of them are of a violent nature, linked notably to overdoses and guns. 

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