I have learned the secret of Finnish happiness. And I’m going to reveal it exclusively to readers of this blog.
After consulting some of the country’s top academics (and several people down the pub) the answer turns out to be … drumroll … a lack of UNhappiness.
Now, that answer may not be very satisfying, but you’ve got to admit it’s rather Finnish.
Satisfaction, contentment and the avoidance of negative experiences – not some kind of carefree attitude or superficial joie de vivre – are key to enjoying life.
It’s equal access to opportunities, it’s trust, it’s knowledge, it’s not being left behind, it’s looking after each other and the environment we live in.
These terms are all very well on paper, but I and my fellow journalists were looking for tangible examples during our week in Helsinki on the FCP alumni programme.
I think the Oodi central library is a good place to start, and not just because I’m in love with books. This landmark building opened in the heart of the city in December last year, on time and on budget, and currently welcomes up to 10,000 visitors a day.
Local citizens helped inform the design of this vast, bright open space, which upstairs feels a bit like a boat deck. It houses books, naturally – 100,000 of them – but it also has rooms you can book for free for whatever project you like. We saw a group of knitters and a kids cookery class under way.
The New Children’s Hospital – also completed on time and on budget, we were told – was likewise an oddly welcoming place. Instead of a reception desk, there stand little terminals where kids can check in themselves and be awarded a special avatar that stays with them throughout their visits.
The hospital clothes were designed by children and every floor has a well-stocked playroom, with activities organised for older in patients, and parents can spend the night with their children in their room.
At Helsingin Sanomat, where we were given insight into how the newspaper has successfully transitioned into the digital age, I was taken by a vast wall of metrics in the newsroom, which included male and female representation in its daily output.
“We have too many old men and young women – we need more older women and younger men,” senior editor-in-chief Kaius Niemi told us. Those are not words a UK newspaper editor would ever utter, believe me.
To the environment, and in the beautiful Aland Islands they don’t just talk about sustainability, they have drawn up four concrete principles. This includes ‘that nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society (chemicals etc) and degradation by physical means’. Another example of a negative being a positive, then.
Perhaps my favourite speaker of the programme was Antti Kauppinen, Professor of Practical Philosophy, who peppered his talk on happiness and well-being with personal anecdotes of growing up in Finland.
He told us that out of the five members of the band he put together with friends, only one had a parent with a college education. Now among those musicians, four have PhDs and one a Masters degree.
It does not matter where you live as most schools are equal, he said, unlike the UK where people who have the means to move areas do so, in order that their kids can go to a ‘good’ school.
Our visit to Finland followed the parliamentary elections which saw a voter turnout of more than 70%, and the result a broad spectrum of views represented by a coalition of five parties led by the Social Democrats.
It was interesting to hear that the populist Finns Party have in recent times toned down their anti-EU stance. If the UK parliament, seen as a ‘beacon of democracy’, can’t secure a timely and orderly departure from the European Union, who could?, we heard.
So the UK’s vote to leave has exposed the difficulties of the process, and perhaps given some people pause for thought. At least something positive has come of it then.
To conclude this blog I’d just like to thanks our hosts Petra and Saku who did an amazing job of herding us about on a stimulating and highly enjoyable week.
It’s true you know, I experienced a distinct lack of unhappiness during my time in Finland.