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Story Publication logo November 22, 2021

Finland Is the So-called Happiest Country on Earth — But Not for Everyone


Open prison in Finland

A look at the penal system in Finland and how it treats people in prisons — much different than the...


Finland is the happiest country on earth.

Every year the United Nations cranks out a World Happiness Report, and Finland and its neighboring Nordic countries are consistently listed within the top 10 slots. For four years in a row, Finland has ranked first.

It would seem that the happiest country would feature tropical weather, as perhaps many would associate it with pleasure, delight and glee. But there’s nothing tropical about the weather in Finland, where wintertime is long and dark, albeit a picturesque forest wonderland.

A team of Nordic scholars set out to dig deeper into the concept of happiness in a report that reviewed existing studies, theories and data. The most prominent explanations include low corruption and a well-functioning democracy. “Furthermore, Nordic citizens experience a high sense of autonomy and freedom, as well as high levels of social trust towards each other, which play an important role in determining life satisfaction,” the report said.

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I met with one of the authors, Frank Martela, at a cafe at the end of Esplanadi, a boulevard park in downtown Helsinki where people stroll and relax. I first ask him if he’s happy. He said yes — work is fulfilling and his three small children are a part of his well-being.

“There’s many, many things that one doesn’t have to worry about too much. Health care compared to U.S., where you have to think about the health insurance issues. And if you have children, it’s going to be quite expensive. So compared to that, it’s quite easy to live in Finland,” Martela said.

He said the secret sauce to happiness in Finland is trust in institutions.

“The research seems to be showing that it’s not so much about culture, but it’s more about the institutions and quality of institutions,” Martela said.

Martela said there’s a theory about the origins of this mentality for Nordic people that goes back to power shifting away from the elite. Russia captured Finland from Sweden in the 1800s, and Finland has only been independent a little more than 100 years. But Russia remained an existential threat.

“The elite was very afraid of Russia. And because of that they realized that if they want to be able to defend against Russia, they need the support of the people,” Martela said. “So the political system was made more meritocratic.”

A social welfare state that takes care of health and education needs evolved. It’s a society with safety nets, and criminal justice is an extension of that philosophy. So it makes sense that open prisons exist.

During my trip, I wondered if it’s easier to build a society like this in a small homogenous country. The report argues against that idea, saying those qualities don’t have a positive or negative relationship on happiness, and there’s heterogeneity in other Nordic countries.

Reports have shown that people of African descent face the highest levels of discrimination in the European Union. And scholars are investigating racial profiling in Finland. I spent time with Afro-Finns during my travel to report on their experiences living in a social welfare state.

Amin Atabong, originally from Cameroon, is a university professor and is working on the first anti-racist or anti-racism mobile phone application in Finland.

ATABONG: We got to realize that racial profiling was a huge, huge problem in Finland. And I was one of the few — one of the only — Black males working as a researcher in that project. It was difficult to get people to talk to me. They didn’t trust me and thought I was working for the police as an informant. It was very interesting that the police actually didn’t agree or accept the outcome of our research. They were very adamant to argue that our research wasn’t done properly, or the results were not right. And that is because in Finland, there is a survey report that shows that about 95% of Finns trust the police. So their focus was always on the 95% of people who trust the police, not on the 5% who do not trust the police.

Whenever people talk about Finland being the happiest country in the world, some ask: For whom?

Because for people who look like me, it’s not the happiest country in the world. Their model is, not it is. It has a lot of very discriminatory policies that exclude people like me. Have you ever been served by a nonwhite person? The answer is no. You will never go to any restaurant or any cafe, unless it is a cafe owned by nonwhite people, and be served by a nonwhite person.

Amin Atabong. Image by Natalie Moore/WBEZ. Finland, 2021.

Mad Ice is the stage name for this musician who also throws a party called Afro Sunday. He’s originally from Uganda but has lived in Finland for 15 years.

MAD ICE: There are times when somebody will just get pissed off while you’re driving that car. Somebody will ask you a question like, “Where do you get the money? You’re stealing our social money. Why are you dressed so nice? How do you spend our government money on your nice glasses?” Yes, I have Gucci and Tom Ford glasses. I work and pay taxes. Then they say, “You’re here to take our women. Yeah, we’re tired of you. You come here to s---- them.” And I’m like, Oh really? Did I take your woman? I almost had a fight because of the car I was driving, a 350SL Mercedes convertible. We parked and I get out, and this guy’s slamming the door. I’m like, what’s your problem? He said, “Do you afford this car?” I’m good with self-defense. I just told him, "Dude just stay away." But it went on for half an hour. Then he started calling me a drug dealer.

Mad Ice. Image by Natalie Moore/WBEZ. Finland, 2021.

Maryan Abdulkarim is a feminist writer who penned this piece.

ABDULKARIM: My family moved here in the 1990s from Somalia. I spent a lot of time growing up here, trying to fit in, to be part of my peer group and whatnot. And there was always something, you would always have these microaggressions and things I wouldn’t understand. And at some point I found hip-hop music, which was like whoa, people who look like me who are doing these things. When I was younger, I would get an idea, and think, "Oh, I’m the first person to think this." So what gives you humility is reading about these historic figures, and their struggles, and what they’ve been through. And then you realize, oh my God, all this stuff has been said again and again and again. Finland is really, really good on so many levels. We have laws in place that protect people. But the thing is, the actual lived reality doesn’t always reach the ideal. On paper, we live in a utopia. The reality isn’t that. The reality is that some are doing better than others. We got a grant, and there were researchers involved, and the idea of the research was to look into, does ethnic profiling happen in Finland? What are the experiences of people who are members of political minorities? So there were a lot of Roma being interviewed, a lot of Black and brown people, and so on. The results were later shared with the police. That was a few years ago, and at least, the law hasn’t changed.

Afro-Finns have typically felt invisible. A few years ago, the Finland dictionary added “Afro-Finn” as a word to the dictionary. The aesthetic of Nordic beauty of blond hair and blue eyes is emphasized.

Journalist Natalie Moore, left, Maryan Abdulkarim and . Finland, 2021.

Saida Mäki-Penttilä is a co-founder of Good Hair Day, which is a community event to connect Afro-Finns. She grew up in Finland in the 1980s.

MÄKI-PENTTILÄ: You definitely felt like you stood out as a kid. And I stood out, having to be the only kid of color in any hobby or any day care class or later in school. And then later, when Good Hair Day was formed about six years ago, it was a phase where in Helsinki a lot of the Afro-Finnish were starting to get together and try to create a community for themselves. And I was so excited to see that happening. I was living in the States at the time. And I was just like, I really need to be a part of this. This is something that I’ve always dreamed to be able to provide for those coming after me, the generations after. Having studied and lived abroad, being able to access Black and brown spaces and knowing how that empowered me and how much it gave me inspiration and role models and just representation of different types of careers. I was like, this is something that we really need to bring to Finland.

Saida Mäki-Penttilä. Image by Natalie Moore/WBEZ. Finland, 2021.

Liban Sheikh is chairperson of the Left Youth of Finland and a city council member in Tampere, Finland’s third-largest city. He is 31 years old and of Somali descent. He has lived in Finland since he was 2 years old.

SHEIKH: In employment markets, there is heavy exclusion based on your name, your ethnicity, and there are stereotypes about minorities. One is to impact leftist parties or actors who are doing class-conscious politics, to bring anti-racism more strongly. We need strong anti-racist unions. The second dimension or direction anti-racist activism is to bring more like class consciousness to minorities and immigrants in Finland who are in poor conditions. We need to talk about economic justice when we talk about anti-racism. And it’s not very trendy topic. So often, we can have anti-racist NGOs, who don’t really discuss about material conditions, and the same goes for feminist unions or NGOs. We try to impact leftist actors, unions, parties. There’s a lot of people who want to see this kind of change. My position is unique in a sense that there has not been an Afro-Finnish or Black head of the Left Youth of Finland. There is a strong need for anti-racist class politics, anti-racist leftist politics, anti-racist welfare politics.

Liban Sheikh. Image by Natalie Moore/WBEZ. Finland, 2021.


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