I didn’t take notes during professor Antti Kaupinen’s presentation. Not because I was not interested on the subject (Happiness and Well-Being) but because I was so captivated and intrigued at the same time by the topic that I did not know what to write down. Yes, Finland has been number one on several happiness rankings for quite some time — which the mention of it, I must confess, became a running gag between our group —, but professor’s Kaupinen was the first critical take on it that I have seen which truly unpacked the claim. Finns are happy, in fact they are the happiest. But why?
During the lecture, a hypothesis was put forward: since happiness is not really ecstasy but a more prolonged state of satisfaction, perhaps Finns are happier because they have a welfare state — or should we say well-being state? — that provides for all their basic needs. This is not exactly new, Finnish people have always been proud of their Nordic model of society, but this time it made me think deeper about it.
I have always been an admirer of the Nordic model, which is part of why I decided to participate in FCP the first time around. And yes, that means its welfare state, with basic needs (education, healthcare, a minimum level of income or subsidy to live on, etc.) being covered. But what makes the Finnish model different than the one, let’s say, we have in Portugal? We also have free healthcare. And free education up until the University level. And yes, we also have basic subsidies for the unemployed and other types of social security benefits. “What makes it so different? And why are we not as happy as the Finns?”, I wondered, as I listened to professor Kaupinen.
The next few days gave me a couple of hints. Of course there are the basic answers and I would not need to travel to Finland to grasp them: Portugal has higher corruption levels; our GDP is lower; Finns read more (both newspapers and books); etc. And I had been in Finland before and for a longer period… But I was younger then and, back in those days, Europe was living through an economic crisis that made everything seem more austere and grey. Coming face to face with the details this time made all the difference.
The first reality shock was the new Children’s Hospital in Helsinki. Yes, kids are taken care of through the national healthcare system, same as back home. But instead of the long wards full of beds crammed next to each other, the long white corridors and the uncomfortable overalls that tie in the back that I am used to, I saw something different: private rooms with large bathrooms, colorful walls, cute little pajamas. Privacy, the ability of parents to stay next to their child through the whole time, a tv and a tablet for each kid to play as well as to connect to others, even to his/her class.
There were other examples in the next few days. The amazing Oodi Library, where you can work in any shape or form you desire (quiet room, loud room, cooking room, studio, 3d printer, you name it) made an impression. There are books all around you, but not on top of you, due to the clever design. There are plants inside. There are spaces where you can charge your phone or computer everywhere. Plus, you can stay in the terrace enjoying the sun and don’t have to pay a single cent for it. It was a feeling similar to the one I had had on Think Corner, in Helsinki University. That is place where the door is open to everyone (not just students) and where you can work, study or listen to conferences surrounded by the most amazing wood covered walls. No bureaucracy to get in; no fee to pay; no uncomfortable cement naked walls that you find in so many public spaces all over Europe.
It was only after I got home that it hit me: “That’s what they mean by well-being state.” A drive from the State to cover all needs and not just the basic ones. Yes, we fight hunger and fill the need of literacy and treat diseases through medicine; but human beings also long for beauty, comfort, personal space, privacy and feelings of welcomeness and inclusion. That is a true welfare and well-being state: taking care of the needs of every citizen, but doing it without leveling down the play field. Instead, leveling it up. Making sure everyone has not only the basic, but the best. Wether that is a cool pajama for a sick kid or the right to use a public space with no questions asked. That might also be the ability to enjoy for free in a public space the same cool architecture you can find in the hippest cafe in town, where you pay almost ten euros for a drink. The well-being State makes every human being feel worthy of the best, not just worthy of the basic. So Professor Kaupinen was right: Finns may not be most ecstatic, but they are the happiest. And there is a reason for that.