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Expert Perspectives

Why Are Finns So Happy?

By Dr. Jack Muskat, Clinical Director of Psychology at Medcan

Finland is colder and darker than Canada, yet it’s the happiest country in the world. What’s their secret?

When the winter season rolls around, I notice a trend in my practice. My patients come to me looking for suggestions on how to be happier. Should they quit their job? Book a Caribbean vacation? Change their relationship status?

Last year, Finland was, for the fourth consecutive year, named the happiest country on Earth, according to the World Happiness Report. From what I can tell, their happiness never stems from a new job, a vacation or a romantic connection.

Canada is ranked 14th on the list. Yet Finland is colder and darker. So why are Finns so happy?

The real root of their happiness is often attributed to a Finnish concept: sisu. There is no direct English translation of sisu, but journalist Katja Pantzar, the author of Everyday Sisu, defines it as “a unique form of Finnish fortitude in the face of challenges big or small… It’s a kind of strength that you tap into on a daily basis,” she says.

Whether you’re biking uphill to work or are dreading an important meeting, sisu is that part of you that pushes through and says, “I got this.”

According to Finnish philosopher Frank Martela, Finns are generally happy because Finnish culture is more accepting of negative emotions and tough times. “Nobody goes through life without tragedies, so being able to accept the situation is helpful,” he says. “In Finnish culture, if someone asks how you are, it’s okay to say, ‘I’m not okay.’ Being able to tolerate unhappiness, in the long term, is good for happiness.”

And yet, Finns don’t appear to be overly happy. In fact, many Finns are surprised to learn that Finland is recognized as the happiest country in the world. “Finland is the land of quiet satisfaction,” says Martela. “People might not outwardly express their joy all the time.” But inside, they’re content.

So what else is contributing to this happiness? Getting outside. In many cold, dark countries, people spend more time inside, staying warm. But the Finns tend to take advantage of their chilly climate. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and swimming in the Baltic Sea are regular activities Finns engage in to stay fit. Exercising outside helps you get a healthy dose of sunlight and vitamin D; it can also even help you burn more calories than working out inside, and building a community around an activity you love can give you a greater sense of belonging and joy.

And even when they’re not working out, the Finns are often surrounded by nature, which has been shown to help reduce stress levels. “Just about everybody in Finland lives about 200 metres from nature,” says Pantzar. “Even in the middle of the city, there are swaths of green. You don’t need to go far to incorporate nature into your daily life.”

Rather than valuing material success or wealth, the Finns place emphasis on their relationships with other people. “Onni ei tule etsien, vaan eläen,” says Martela, “is a Finnish saying which means: happiness is not found by searching, but by living.” To illustrate the point, Martela pointed to a UBC study found that people who spent money on others reported greater happiness than those who spent money on themselves.

As a philosopher, Martela has been approached several times with the question, “What is the meaning of life?” He says: “I developed this one sentence answer: The meaning in life is about making yourself meaningful to other people. It’s about connection.” In other words, connect with others, and you’ll find not only the meaning of life, but happiness, too.

If you’d like to talk about opportunities to support your mental health, contact a member of Medcan’s Mental Well-Being team at mentalwellbeing@medcan.com.

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