Finland is rarely mentioned as an example by leftists and Greens who want to build a better future. Yet this little-noticed country is one of the most equal, peaceful and happiest on the planet. Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen explain how Finland came to demonstrate the benefits of investing in people – and suggest what its model might have to offer the rest of the world.
Danny Dorling, New Internationalist, 1 February 2021
Finland has become the ‘by way of contrast’ country, as the British Medical Journal described it in 2018. Finland is the one place that shows that something much better is possible than the status quo. That is a weighty responsibility. Of course, Finland is not Utopia, but today it offers one of the closest approximations.
In 2018, when Finland first achieved its top placing in the UN’s World Happiness Report, a UK newspaper reported the news with the caveat: ‘… even though its GDP is below that of the US and Germany’. When Finland overtook Norway to take first place in the World Happiness Report, it did so with a GDP per capita that was more than a third lower than that of Norway; and it then went on to hold that top-ranked position in both 2019 and 2020.
The World Happiness Report ranks countries according to GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption levels in each country to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a ladder scale ranging from 0 for the worst possible life to 10 for the best possible life.
Finland is the country that most clearly shows how it is possible for world-beating happiness to be achievable without becoming ever richer, and while having living standards in terms of material wealth that are below those in the most affluent parts of the world, including its more affluent Scandinavian neighbours.
Recent research conducted in Finland has established that ‘well-being is to a significant extent conditioned by the position one occupies in the social structure and by the welfare regime one lives in’.However, that research also found that Finland is unusual in one other way, namely when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of recent migrants to the country.
In affluent countries, immigrants usually tend to be more optimistic than the natives of their new country. When the UN measured the happiness of immigrants for the first time in their 2018 report, Finland scored the highest of any country being compared. However, in general in Nordic countries, including Finland, where people’s well-being is generally so high, being of an immigrant background is an adverse factor, when all else is taken into account. It is possible that it is very hard for outsiders to fit into a society that is already so equal and cohesive.
If you turn up in London or New York as an immigrant, you are just one of many similar others in cities full of immigrants. What is more, you have just arrived in a society that is deeply divided. The rich do not trust the poor, and the poor have good reason not to trust the rich. Almost everyone is an outsider in one way or another. Many, if not most, people you meet will be migrants like you, or their parents were. The same cannot be said of Finland or of other countries that top the list of most happy or most politically stable places.
The Fragile State Index (previously the ‘Failed State Index’) has been published annually since 2005. It ranks 178 countries across 12 indicators that attempt to summarize the key risks and vulnerabilities faced by individual nations. Currently, Finland ranks highest overall in this index, as the least fragile state in the world. It also ranks highest on many components of the index, including on low group grievance, on high (as well as socially even) economic development, on good public services, and on low demographic pressures – all as compared with the other countries in the top ten shown in the table.
At first it appears quite remarkable that as well as performing very strongly on so many other international rankings, Finland ranks highest of all 178 countries for political stability. However, international rankings are very positively correlated with each other. It is easier for your people to be happy if your state is not fragile, your press is free and responsible, your schools are cohesive, the health of your infants is good and the health of the population as a whole is improving rapidly from what used to be quite a poor record.
Finland today is one of the few environments on earth that replicates most closely the situation in which we are most content: when we are caring for each other and not competing; where we are each valued very similarly, and where no one is greatly elevated or diminished. In another affluent country that is in many ways Finland’s opposite, in today’s UK, 1 in every 200 people are homeless. In Finland the proportion is at least four times lower and almost no people are to be found actually sleeping on the streets.