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By Nicole Spector

John Adams wrote that our “the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best."

Based on the findings in the World Happiness Report 2019, Founding Father Adams was pretty spot on in his description of happiness.

The report, produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in partnership with the Ernesto Illy Foundation, using surveys from Gallup, ranks 156 countries using six variables: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.

It’s woefully ironic that with so much emphasis on “freedom”, the U.S barely made it into the top 20 happiest countries, by this index, dragging in at number 19 (lagging behind its #18 spot from last year).

It’s interesting that there is perceived or actual limitations here — that many Americans feel they don't have agency over their life — and it's deeply concerning.

Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University

“This [concept of freedom] is a more novel metric than we typically see in such reports,” says Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business who studies how people make decisions in varying states, and how macro-level issues affect individual behavior. “It’s interesting that there is perceived or actual limitations here — that many Americans feel they don't have agency over their life — and it's deeply concerning.”

The top five countries spotlight Scandinavia and Northern Europe

Finland came in at number one (for the second year in a row), followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

The happiness list toppers came as no surprise to Dan Buettner, author, educator and explorer who discovered the Blue Zones (and coined the term).

“It’s like the same people show up to the same parties but switch chairs around [with these annual lists],” says Buettner. “A few things that these places have in common how positively people report on their lives. They have free or close to free access to healthcare, which then connects to a higher healthy life expectancy.”

Fewer worries = more happiness

There are so many facets to this report and its respective variables, but perhaps the biggest takeaway for why these areas are happier than the U.S boils down to this: by providing citizens safety nets around important issues such as healthcare and social support, these governments enable people to have an easier time to focus on and meet their goals.

“In studying goals, [I’ve found] that people are happiest when pursuing one goal at a time,” says Shea. “If you pursue two to three goals at once, you’re still relatively happy, but not less so. Say my goal is to become healthy; that’s more [attainable] in a higher ranking country that has my basic health needs met, where I have no worries of going broke or of getting fired. That social safety net makes my goal easier to pursue.”

Why is Finland so happy?

Though the report spells out how Finland (which launched a contest for a free trip upon declaration that it was the “happiest” country) is winning at happiness through effective policy, it should be noted that not all of Finland’s glee comes down to how it’s governed.

The Nordic nation has longstanding traditions and distinct styles of living that foster and promote joy.

Heikki Väänänen, the Finnish founder of HappyOrNot, a customer happiness feedback platform says that in Finland (where he grew up and currently lives), people are always outdoors interacting — even in bad weather.

“If you wait for great weather, you'll often be waiting for a long time,” says Väänänen. “We do quite a lot of sports in the evenings and spend time with neighbors. I don’t know that there’s any research here, but I’d bet we spend much less time watching Netflix than people in the U.S.”

Easy commutes with fewer worries about the kids

Väänänen adds that because Finland is so small, work commutes are usually swift, giving people more free time to enjoy themselves.

Independence is a big part of our happiness.

“Commutes are around five to 15 minutes, and never would it be more than 30 minutes,” says Väänänen. “We usually walk, bike or take the bus, though some of us drive. Since kids go to school and off to hobbies on their own, and are very independent, we don’t worry about dropping them off or picking them up. Parents don’t worry something scary will happen. Independence is a big part of our happiness.”

It may come down to what Finns call 'sisu'

Katja Pantzar, the Helsinki-based author of “The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu,” says she views Finland as an “outsider-insider.” Born in Finland, Pantzar grew up in Canada and lived in the UK and New Zealand.

“I tend to view many aspects of daily life here as exotic that locals might hold as ordinary,” she says.

Pantzar has been captivated by the Finnish concept of sisu, which describes the Finnish people's stoicism, determination and resilience. She says it's a “key element to happiness in Finland.”

“Sisu means taking a hearty approach to the long, cold dark winter by embracing activities such as winter swimming — taking an icy dip in a lake or the sea when it's below freezing outside and the water is about 1 or 2 degrees Celsius,” Pantzar says. “The great surprise for many who try winter swimming for the first time is the post-dip feeling of euphoria. Swimmers feel energized and exuberant, as the immersion in icy water releases the so-called happy hormones. These include endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin."

Many devotees follow up their icy dip with a sauna, the quintessential Finnish steam bath, where bathers (men and women sauna separately) sit without swimsuits — another test of getting comfortable with a little discomfort.”

As Pantzar puts it, when you combine these sorts of reinvigorating activities “with a fairly egalitarian society, a strong social security safety net that includes virtually free elementary, secondary and university education and a culture of trust — you have the basic ingredients for a balanced lifestyle.”

How to up happiness wherever you are

After hearing from Kantzar and Väänänen, my long brewing desire to relocate to Finland fired up. But how feasible would that really be? Not very. So, I’ll have to up my own happiness levels here in the U.S.

The effect of financial security is about three times as long lasting and effective as the feeling of buying a new gadget or new pair of shoes. Financial security is better for long term happiness.

Dan Buettner

Buettner shares some insights on how anyone can amplify their happiness wherever they are.

  • Social environment. “Make sure you have a couple happy friends in your immediate circle of friends. For every new friend, you’re 15 percent more likely to be happy.”
  • Saving money whenever possible. “The effect of financial security is about three times as long lasting and effective as the feeling of buying a new gadget or new pair of shoes. Financial security is better for long term happiness.”
  • Getting outdoors — and walking, if able. “By and large these happiest places make an overt effort to be walkable. In Copenhagen, 55 percent of all trips in that city are taken on foot, and it’s similar in Helsinki. These cities are not designed just for cars, but for humans.”

Rock the vote

Pamela Gail Johnson, founder of the Secret Society of Happy People urges people to make their voices heard, adding that the Happiness Report highlights a positive correlation between voting and happiness.

“Your happy solution here in the U.S is to get involved in learning about issues that matter to you,” says Johnson. “Learn about the topic beyond your perspective and situation. Use your voice in a positive way to let people know your feelings once educated. If there are things you don’t like, mobilize at the state level because states can influence the national debate — but takes a lot of small voices to make one big voice.”

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