For quite a few years in a row, Finland has come to the top of the list as the world's happiest country. What happens next usually is massive sharing on social media where we all cheer, congratulate each other and express our pride in living in and contributing to a society of happy people. In the meantime, people who visit Finland are somewhat puzzled as they (accurately) point to the fact that on the surface little of this happiness is visible in everyday interactions with Finns.

One may joke that in Finland we hide this happiness deep inside ourselves not to irritate our Swedish neighbours. Other more rational voices argue that the happiness index is not measuring happiness! It is rather measuring the confidence we have in our future and the extent to which we worry about what may or may not happen in it.

The story of Finnish happiness has two dark clouds over it – both dark enough to make us doubt the entire happiness story. The first one is the amount of anti-depressants we use in Finland. In 2019 more than 400,000 people per year in Finland received compensation from the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) for anti-depressant medications. Some 50-70 per cent of users take the drugs to treat depression. We are not alone – Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland also belong in the top 10 happiest countries in the world and the top 10 antidepressant-consuming countries in Europe. Such figures invoke a certain sense of black humour: are the pills the secret to our happiness, or did too much happiness drive us to depression?

Another dark cloud shadowing the sun of our happiness is the massive amount of work-related burnouts in Finland. According to a survey of working conditions conducted by Statistics Finland in 2018, the fear of burnout doubled between 2013 and 2018. Four years ago 15% of wage earners felt that there was a clear risk of severe burnout, compared with 7% in 2013. About a fourth of working-age people in Finland suffer from “mild burnout” and 2-3% suffer from serious burnout. There is a similar situation in Sweden. But the number of people diagnosed with ‘clinical burnout’ has risen rapidly in recent years and is the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, accounting for more than 20% of sickness benefit cases across all age groups. Bad news doesn’t stop here. Another scientific investigation of parental burnout shows Finnish parents to be the seventh-most burnt-out parents among those surveyed in 42 countries by scientists, part of an international research consortium known as BParent.

Why? How? In the happiest country? How can we interpret all that? What can we do about it? How can we be more and genuinely happy in the happiest country? Here are some thoughts and ideas.

Empathy and support
I have the feeling that a sizeable part of the anti-depressants we use have two reasons: 1) low levels of empathy in society, and 2) insufficient psychiatric help. The former perhaps deals with the historical layers of Finnish mentality where much was about enduring hardships in a stubborn, silent, remote and individualistic way. Now, so many years later, the hardships are considerably less but the approach stays the same on many levels. We are not that interested in one another and have little tolerance for people that may share their frustrations, difficulties or unhappiness. That has become especially difficult since the arrival of the “positive thinking” hype. Make no mistake – I am a big supporter and preacher of positive thinking myself. Still, I do recognize the danger of all too quickly labelling anyone who wishes to share or ventilate dark thoughts and complain as a “moaner” to say politely. As a result, many people fall victim to the “happiness” competition – no one feels good to be labelled unhappy and many feel guilty to be unhappy in the happiest country. Not being heard, not being able to share and discuss, and not finding support from family and friends, we try to find support in our great healthcare system. But here we are subjected to its magic efficiency formula. With a limited amount of time and geared for ultimate efficiency our complaints to the doctor like “en jaksaa enää” “I feel constant anxiety” or “I can’t sleep enough” prompt the doctor’s quick solution: “try the pill”. If the blue doesn’t help we have other colours! It’s an efficient system that sadly addresses the symptoms but not the causes.

Less work-related burnouts
I am myself in executive education and can witness and confirm: a big part of Finnish companies have the well-being of their employees very close to their heart. The matter is taken seriously and sizeable investments are done into employees’ well-being; be it fitness subscriptions, leadership programs, well-being initiatives etc. And yet, here we are. What can be done? There are no easy answers or silver bullets that I may share. But what I know is that two things may greatly help: 1) more excitement and risk-taking, 2) more of the above-mentioned mutual empathy. The first one is perhaps somewhat counterintuitive. Many Finnish working environments are extremely risk-aversive, monotonous, efficiency-geared environments that value, cherish and praise comfort and stability - that is how many understand psychological safety. But such comfort kills! It kills the excitement and joy of risk-taking, pushing, trying and eventually and occasionally failing. Thus, business leaders need to considerably reassess their attitude towards risk-taking and failing. They need to focus on developing a more exciting company culture where we, give new cool things a try and make many of them /but not all/ happen while having fun on the way! In doing that more empathy may certainly help - not only empathy between leaders and employees but between all of us. This renewed company culture must also develop and cherish every day, mutual empathy. It’s not rocket science - it is about remembering that we are not robots, some production units expect instructions and deliver KPIs. It is about simple things, from giving and asking more feedback to the simple question “how are you?” where we care also for the answer.

Certainly, these are just part of the possible remedies. Some many more angles and perspectives will help us map the bottlenecks and look for solutions. Living in the happiest country is indeed a matter of both pride and joy! But we shall not make the mistake to think “mission accomplished” and instead shall look deeper into how each and one of us, how our institutions and companies can and must try to deliver more of the genuine happiness we all deserve.

Peter Zashev
Peter Zashev is an academic, entrepreneur and philanthropist working as a Program Director at Hanken & SSE Executive Education. Originally from Bulgaria and a Finnish national, Peter’s area of expertise includes leadership, change and building high-performing teams. His experience builds on more than 15 years in executive education working with the management of big companies in the Nordic countries, the Baltic States and Russia.


This is a "Viewpoint" opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of The Helsinki Times. This column is not fact checked and HT is not be responsible for any possible inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article.