Finntopia: what we can learn from the world's happiest country?

Estimated reading time:
8 minutes
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In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the World Happiness Report ranked Finland the world's happiest country, both for its total population and for the immigrants living there. The United States and the UK were placed eighteenth (fifteenth for immigrants) and nineteenth (twentieth for immigrants), respectively.

The Nordic Model has long been touted as the aspiration for social and public policy in Europe and North America, but what is it about Finland that makes the country so successful and seemingly such a great place to live?

In the quest for the best of all societies, Professor Danny Dorling and co-author Annika Koljonen explore what can be learnt from Europe's most equitable country, why it's been so successful, with what consequence, and what does not work well when equality is so high in a newly published book, 'Finntopia'. Danny Dorling explains more:

How did Finntopia come about and what main themes does it explores?

I gave a talk in the city of Cambridge for a local group that had formed a few years ago to campaign for greater equality locally. Like Oxford, Cambridge is a very socially divided city, by some measures it can lay claim to being the most economically divided in the country. In this case Oxford comes a close second place - for instance just look at how much the exam results awarded to children living in the city of Oxford vary by where they were born and how rich or poor their parents are. These exam results are almost all about postcodes and privilege - but in very unequal societies many people usually have little idea about that. At Cambridge I explained that this situation would be funny if it were not so sad. Annika Koljonen was volunteering with the campaigning group. She was then a student in England but she had been brought up mostly in Finland. What I was saying was extremely clear to her because she had seen what happens in a more equitable country such as Finland, how much less deluded people are there, and what a more equitable education system can achieve both in reducing delusion and increasing genuine ability. 'Finntopia' looks at many aspects of life in Finland, but there is a great deal in it on childhood, education, and on later social outcomes.

So, what is Finland's secret to happiness?

In a nutshell the population of Finland, more than any other on earth at the moment, realises that what it has, what it is living with - each individually and collectively - is very good. By very good I mean not perfect, but - all things considered - very good. Finns then, in aggregate, translate this perception to the highest proportion of positive answers recorded per person in the world happiness surveys, and have done for each of the last three years. The phrase 'all things considered' is important here. The expectations of Finnish people are realistic. They are also aware of what they have achieved in so many spheres of life. It is not just educational achievement but more importantly in health, where Finland recorded the lowest infant mortality the world has ever known a few years ago. There are fewer grieving parents in Finland than anywhere else worldwide, per capita. Finland scores in the top three, usually being the top one, in over one hundred similar social statistics - but the Finns are not smug or complacent. An average Finn would be a little annoyed to read what I have just written and for me to have not mentioned some downsides of life in Finland, or risks in the future to the Finnish achievement.

Can Finland be caught up or overtaken?

It is inevitable that Finland will not keep the top spot on the world happiness rankings for ever. In fact, holding that position for three years is remarkable and may well have a little to do with luck and sample variance in the survey and measures that are used. There are several countries where people are almost as happy as they are in Finland, at any point one of those countries might very likely take the top spot. It will be interesting to watch, and the pandemic may play a role in next year's ranking. Neighbouring Sweden currently ranks seventh on happiness, but its people might express a little more happiness than Finland's as their movements and activity were not quite as restricted during lockdown. Alternatively, the country that ranked eighth in 2020 for happiness, New Zealand, might suddenly jump to pole position in one year's time if its citizens decide they really have enjoyed global isolation and a much stricter set of government policies on travel during the pandemic. We will just have to wait and see. In the long-term success for Finland would be to see its measures adopted elsewhere and other countries record similar or even higher rankings than Finland. That can also happen if the Finns decide that what they have, given the head start they now have gained, is just not good enough in future if they don't keep improving.

How do you think the country's ethos might have helped its approach or response to a global pandemic?

Being cautious certainly helped. This helped directly in that personal protective equipment has been stockpiled in Finland since at least the 1957 influenza pandemic. So, Finland was ready in ways countries like the four that make up the UK were not. The health service in Finland was also in a far more robust state than the health service in the UK (public spending in Finland has been so much higher for so many years and decades longer). However, at least the UK had a national health service that was still mostly public. The USA does not and that fact can be seen in how the pandemic has never much abated in terms of impact there. Finland has much more that would have helped had the pandemic become well established in Finland (which it did not). The better social security and employment system is a good example. Or the fact that Finland would not have worried about people who were homeless catching and spreading the disease (as almost no one is homeless in Finland). Finally, politicians in Finland resign at the slightest whiff of corruption or incompetence; and the population of Finland elect competent politicians into power. As the USA, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and the UK have helped demonstrate - doing the opposite has bad pandemic outcomes.

If this book could help bring about one change what would you want it to be and why?

I would hope that the book can give people more hope, especially younger adults and school children. Many think that people are doomed as the climate emergency is not addressed and as biodiversity continues to be decimated. I often meet school children when I talk about these issues in schools who tell me that the billionaires have taken almost everything everywhere and so there is no hope. I meet university students and young people in employment who think that they will spend all the rest of their lives struggling to pay rent to landlords who will simply have more holidays and grow even richer at their expense. I meet many people who think that everything is getting worse everywhere and who do not realise that all the states in the EU28 were more equitable than the UK, or that states like Finland are already committed to being carbon neutral decades before the UK is. I would like people to know what is possible and also to realise how long it took and how much effort it took. What Finland has achieved did not occur overnight; but most of the world has more in common with Finland than with (currently) odd outlier, former world dominant states such as the USA and UK.

What brought you to academia and what drives your research interests?

I never left university. I was very lucky in my choice of where I went; and I was incredibly lucky be born into a family where it was seen as ok to go to university back then. I was born at a time when only 1 child in fifty from an average school (not a grammar school) went to university. I had almost no idea what I wanted to do in the future at age eighteen, but I knew I wanted to go to university, that I wanted to travel a long way from where I had grown up to see a different place, and that I wanted to study social sciences and use maths and statistics. I was also not very impressed by the kinds of things that were taught in economics in the 1980s which appeared to make no sense, so I chose geography, maths and some computing instead to avoid having to recite economic theory. I am driven by curiosity and a desire to try and do things that would otherwise not be done. If someone else might do it - then why bother? Of course, someone might well, but it is easier if you do not imagine that! So, if it appears that no one has written a book about Europe's most equitable country that is also about its strengths and weaknesses, its history and economy in the context of equality, then after a few years thinking about, if the opportunity comes up - why not? Especially if someone else who knows more about the subject than I do is willing to collaborate with me.

For any aspiring researchers out there, why would you encourage them to pursue a career in Geography?

In terms of the Human Geography that most interests me at the moment, things just became a great deal more interesting. States can be seen as natural (or unnatural) experiments where you can ask - what happens if you do something in the 1980s to outcomes much later? This is not scientific. We do not have enough countries in the world to do scientific studies, but Geography is also part of the humanities, along with history, and part of the social sciences alongside politics. A more practical reason to pursue a career in Geography is that it can be relatively easy to change career later, as long as you do the kind of Geography that means you have valued skills. Most of the researchers I have worked with in Geography and the postgraduate students have since moved departments to work in areas such as epidemiology, public health or social policy. As long as you are careful to ensure that what you are doing is of value, a background in Geography can lead to research opportunities outside of Geography, and outside of academia too. You are free to be curious among a much broader range of subjects than had you had any other disciplinary background.

Finntopia cover

Danny Dorling's work concerns issues of housing, health, employment, education, wealth and poverty. In recent years his research has focussed on economic inequality, and in particular why the UK has been the first and only EU state to try and leave the union. More globally, he has been looking at trends which have indicated that growth rates such as demography and innovation have been slowing.

Find out more about 'Finntopia'

Finntopia: what we can learn from the world's happiest country?

In the quest for the best of all societies, Professor Danny Dorling provides insights on his latest book, exploring what can be learnt from Europe's most equitable country and what's made it the world's happiest country for three years running.