Lenka Hanovská

Expat view

The sayings about Finland's open and equal society have always sounded a bit cliché. But the victory in the "societal happiness" competition went beyond my understanding even after the first year spent in Finland. Yes, of course, people in Finland are open to talk, incredibly frank and direct in conversation. They acknowledge differences with great respect, but the happiest people in the world? With only a few hours of light in winter? With all the seriousness and distance in social relations?

How could the Finns be the happiest people in the world when one hardly finds a Finnish friend, the one she can giggle and confide with regularly? Understanding Finnish happiness has taken me a while, as it is challenging to penetrate Finnish society from the outside. But once one becomes a member, it all starts to make sense.

I arrived in Finland as a postdoc researcher for three-year-long project research at the University of Oulu. I came with my family, which is my husband and two kids, at that time, two and five years old. If I am to gain international research experience, it must be today, when the kids are not school grown yet, I said to myself and left the beautiful mild Prague for the industrial cold Oulu. The beginnings were tough. All the social and familial ties that make the home were suddenly gone, and we (or at least I) felt like in a vacuum where nothing made sense. The working conditions were amazing, my colleagues friendly and helpful, but the warmness of home and familiarity of everyday life were missing. Suddenly, the weather, not my mood, determined my dressing. Abruptly, no easy talks with strangers, nor even with colleagues. Even establishing a friendship with my kids' friends' parents was a problem as arranging a meeting required planning of date, time and place, an approach I was not used to at all. How can one plan a social life? The weather and social distance have made our family close, an independent enclosed unit that stands as one when facing the world.

As such, we adapted to social planning and started to focus on everyday duties: me and my husband in jobs, the kids at the day-care centre. Family life has become the centre of our lives. Life started to be somehow organised, structured and simple. I am not saying we lived chaotically in Prague, but the rhythm was very different. There were always some encounters, traffic or unexpected duties and leisure. In Oulu, the weather takes it all, and one knows pretty well what s/he is up to in the afternoon.

The first winter brought me an important observation - the importance of every member of society. In Prague, the cleaners of the streets were invisible to me. In Oulu, I know I can only walk to work with city services in the early mornings. I learnt quickly to appreciate people in colourful overalls because they make the city run. But it is also the smiley shopkeepers that greet me in dark mornings and even darker afternoons or the considerable postman who searches for a package despite the poor English, trying to help as much as he can. Neither receptive clerks economise respectful and welcoming words when communicating official matters. Although I have not spoken with all these people about their happiness at work, the confidence and joy in their movements made me feel good they do their jobs.

Suddenly, without making an effort, doing our jobs and minding our own business, I realised we participate in Finnish society's life and are happy with it. It is not an observation but an experience of the stranger who comes to society and feels appreciated just because s/he is part of it. To accept a determined place and mind one's own business suffices here for a happy sense. It is not something one has to fight for or even search for. In Finland, it is something one can only accept when finding the good in everyday life. Take it or leave it could be another Finnish saying. Now, from the inside, I think the happy Finns are simply those who have taken.

By Lenka Hanovská