Finntopia: what we can learn from the world's happiest country? | University of Oxford
Finnish people are the happiest in the world
Credit: Shutterstock Finnish people are rated as the happiest in the world for the third year running

Finntopia: what we can learn from the world's happiest country?

In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the World Happiness Report ranked Finland the world's happiest country, both for its total population and for the immigrants there. The United States and the UK were placed eighteenth (fifteenth for immigrants) and nineteenth (twentieth for immigrants), respectively.

The Nordic model has long been touted as the aspiration for social and public policy in Europe and North America, but what is it about Finland which makes the country so successful and, seemingly, such a great place to live?

In the quest for the best of all societies, the School of Geography and the Environment’s Professor Danny Dorling, and co-author Annika Koljonen, explore what can be learnt from Europe’s most equitable country, why it has been so successful, with what consequence, and what does not work well when equality is so high in a newly published book, ‘Finntopia’.

Professor Danny Dorling explains more:

How did 'Finntopia' come about and what main themes does it explores

I gave a talk in the city of Cambridge for a local group, which had formed a few years ago to campaign for greater equality locally. Like Oxford, Cambridge is very socially divided, by some measures it can lay claim to being the most economically divided in the country. Oxford comes a close second place – for instance, just look at how much the exam results awarded to children living in the city of Oxford vary by where they were born and how rich or poor their parents are. These exam results are almost all about postcodes and privilege but, in very unequal societies, many people can have little idea about that.  At Cambridge, I explained this situation would be funny, were it not so sad.

Annika Koljonen was volunteering with the campaigning group. She was then a student in England, but she had been brought up mostly in Finland. What I was saying was extremely clear to her, because she had seen what happens in a more equitable country, Finland - how much less deluded people are there, and what a more equitable education system can achieve, both in reducing delusion and increasing genuine ability. ‘Finntopia’ looks at many aspects of life in Finland, but there is a great deal as well on childhood, education and on later social outcomes.

So, what is Finland’s secret to happiness? 

The population of Finland, more than any other on Earth...realises that what it very good

In a nutshell, the population of Finland, more than any other on Earth at the moment, realises that what it has, what it is living with – each individually and collectively – is very good. By very good, I do not mean perfect, but – all things considered – very good.

Finns then, in aggregate, translate this perception to the highest proportion of positive answers recorded per person in world happiness surveys, and have done for each of the last three years. The phrase ‘all things considered’ is important here. The expectations of Finnish people are realistic. They are also aware of what they have achieved in so many spheres of life. It is not just educational achievement but, more importantly, in health, where, a few years ago, Finland recorded the lowest infant mortality the world has ever known. There are fewer grieving parents in Finland than anywhere else, per capita. Finland scores in the top three, usually being the top one, in more than 100 similar social statistics. But the Finns are not smug or complacent. An average Finn would be a little annoyed to read what I have just written and for me to have not mentioned some downsides of life in Finland, or risks in the future to the Finnish achievement.

Can Finland be caught up or overtaken? 

It is inevitable that Finland will not keep the top spot for ever. In fact, holding that position for three years is remarkable and may well have a little to do with luck and sample variance in the survey and measures used.

There are several other countries where people are almost as happy as they are in Finland, at any point one of those countries might, very likely, take the top spot. It will be interesting to watch, and the pandemic may play a role in next year’s ranking. Neighbouring Sweden, currently ranks seventh on happiness, but its people might express a little more happiness than Finland’s because their movements and activity were not quite as restricted during lockdown. Alternatively, the country that ranked eighth in 2020, New Zealand, might suddenly jump to pole position , if its citizens decide they really have enjoyed global isolation and a much stricter set of government policies on travel during the pandemic. We will just have to wait and see.

In the long-term, success for Finland would be to see its measures adopted elsewhere and other countries record similar or even higher rankings. That can also happen if the Finns decide that what they have, given the head start they now have gained, is just not good enough in future if they don’t keep improving.

How do you think the country’s ethos might have helped its approach or response to a global pandemic? 

Being cautious certainly helped...personal protective equipment has been stockpiled in Finland since at least the 1957 influenza pandemic

Being cautious certainly helped. This helped directly in that personal protective equipment has been stockpiled in Finland since at least the 1957 influenza pandemic.

Finland was ready in ways countries, such as the four which make up the UK, were not. The health service in Finland was also in a far more robust state than the health service in the UK (public spending in Finland has been so much higher for many years).  However, the UK has a national health service, which was still mostly public, the US does not.

Finland has much more that would have helped, had the pandemic become well-established in Finland (which it did not): a better social security and employment system is a good example. Finland would not have worried about people who were homeless catching and spreading the disease because almost no one is homeless in Finland.

Finally, politicians in Finland resign at the slightest whiff of corruption or incompetence; and the population of Finland elect competent politicians . Doing the opposite leads to bad pandemic outcomes.

If this book could help bring about one change what would you want it to be and why?

I would hope that the book can give people more hope, especially younger adults and school children. Many think that people are doomed, as the climate emergency is not addressed and as biodiversity continues to be decimated. I  visit schools and children tell me that the billionaires have taken almost everything everywhere and there is no hope. I meet university students and young people in employment who think they will spend the rest of their lives struggling to pay rent to landlords, who will have more holidays and grow even richer at their expense.

I meet many people who think that everything is getting worse everywhere and who do not realise that all the states in the EU28 were more equitable than the UK, or that states such as Finland are already committed to being carbon neutral - decades before the UK. I would like people to know what is possible and also to realise how long it took and how much effort it took. What Finland has achieved did not occur overnight; but most of the world has more in common with Finland than with former world dominant states such as the USA and UK.

What Finland has achieved did not occur overnight; but most of the world has more in common with Finland than with...former world dominant states such as the US and UK

What brought you to academia and what drives your research interests 

I never left university. I was very lucky in my choice of where I went; and I was incredibly lucky be born into a family where it was seen as ok to go to university. I was born at a time when only one child in 50 from an average school (not a grammar school) went to university. I had almost no idea what I wanted to do at age 18, but I knew I wanted to go to university, that I wanted to travel a long way from where I had grown-up, to see a different place and that I wanted to study social sciences and use maths and statistics.

I was not very impressed by the kinds of things that were taught in economics in the 1980s, which appeared to make no sense. So, I chose geography, maths and some computing, to avoid having to recite economic theory. I am driven by curiosity and a desire to do things that would otherwise not be done. If someone else might do it – why bother? Of course, someone might well, but it is easier if you do not imagine that!

So, if it appears no one has written a book about Europe’s most equitable country, about its strengths and weaknesses, its history and economy in the context of equality, then after a few years' thinking, if the opportunity comes up – why not? Especially if someone else who knows more about the subject than I, is willing to collaborate with me.

For any aspiring researchers out there, why would you encourage them to pursue a career in Geography? 

In terms of the Human Geography that most interests me at the moment, things just became a great deal more interesting. States can be seen as natural (or unnatural) experiments where you can ask – what happens, if you did something in the 1980s, to outcomes much later?

This is not scientific. We do not have enough countries in the world to do scientific studies, but Geography is also part of the humanities, along with history, and part of the social sciences alongside politics. A more practical reason to pursue a career in Geography is that it can be relatively easy to change career later, as long as you do the kind of Geography that means you have valued skills. Most of the researchers I have worked with in Geography and the postgraduate students have since moved departments to work in areas such as epidemiology, public health or social policy. As long as you are careful to ensure that what you are doing is of value, a background in Geography can lead to research opportunities outside of Geography, and outside of academia too. You are free to be curious among a much broader range of subjects than had you had any other disciplinary background.

Danny Dorling is Professor of Geography at the University’s School of Geography and the Environment. His work concerns issues of housing, health, employment, education, wealth and poverty. In recent years his research has focussed on economic inequality, and in particular why the UK has been the first and only EU state to try and leave the union. More globally, he has been looking at trends which have indicated that growth rates such as demography and innovation have been slowing.

Find out more about ‘Finntopia’ here: