Is Finland really the happiest country? And if so, at what cost to our planet?

Earlier this year, Finland was, for the 7th year in a row, crowned the happiest country in the world. But the data used to make this claim are not based on happiness in the way that most people understand. Furthermore, the extent to which Finns are happy is reliant on an inefficient use of our planet’s increasingly scarce resources.

Towards a happy planet and a fair level of resource use

Last month the Hot or Cool Institute released the latest round of the Happy Planet Index (HPI). First launched in 2006, the HPI is a measure of sustainable wellbeing. It’s a simple yet insightful measure that compares the resource efficiency of countries across the world (based on their carbon footprint) in creating citizens with long and happy lives. The HPI has important implications for all our lives – from our personal choices, right up to how we act collectively as nations. It is all well and good when a country (or individual) has a high level of life expectancy and happiness, but if carbon emissions are too high then this poses a threat to happiness for humanity as a whole in the long run.

In the latest Happy Planet Index, Finland rank 17th. Whilst they live reasonably long lives (82.0 years – 18th highest in the world), they have a carbon footprint of 12.2 tonnes of CO2e per citizen. Finland doesn’t have the biggest carbon footprint (Qatar consume a whopping 42.2 tonnes of CO2e per citizen), but it is three times as high as the global average of 4 tonnes, and higher still than what might be considered a fair share of 3.2 tonnes of CO2e per citizen.

A country like Vanuatu, on the other hand, where citizens can expect to live a reasonably long and happy life, has a carbon footprint of just 2.6 tonnes of CO2e per citizen. It is this combination that explains why they top the Happy Planet Index. Sweden comes second in the 2024 HPI. Whilst the Swedes are comparable to the Finns with respect to both happiness and longevity of life, their carbon footprint is much lower than in Finland (though still above sustainable levels at 8.7 tonnes of CO2e).

You can see the full ranking here.

But is it happiness as most people understand it?

A scarcely talked about issue, however, is what is meant by happiness in these types of rankings. People’s understanding of what constitutes happiness often differs, even among those within similar cultures and languages, which makes it all the more important to be clear about what is being measured. In both the World Happiness Report rankings and the HPI, what is being used is something different from what many people would recognise as happiness.

When we read the headlines we might imagine, aided by the news images that often accompany the reports, Finns smiling, laughing, and generally enjoying themselves a lot. Yet, the conclusion that Finland is the happiest country in the world is surprisingly based on a question that doesn’t even include the word happiness. Rather, people are asked “where do you imagine yourself to be on a ladder ranging from the worst possible life to the best possible life”?

People rate themselves from 0 (worst possible) to 10 (best possible) and by this metric the Finns have been averaging around 7.8 for several years. The Finns are typically followed by other Nordic countries, such as Denmark and Norway. The United Kingdom normally score about 6.8 on average, putting them about 20th globally. The United States are often about the same as the UK.

This measure does tell us something important about how people feel about their lives. But it’s more an evaluation of one’s life – what is referred to as an evaluative type of happiness – and tends to emphasize an evaluation based on power and wealth.

Smiling, laughing, and feeling joy

But the Gallup World Poll also asks another question on which Finland doesn’t do so well. Asked whether they smiled or laughed a lot the previous day, Finns rank only 55th in the world. They rank 57th on the question of whether they enjoyed themselves in the previous day.

So where do people smile, laugh and enjoy themselves the most? According to the 2022 Gallup World Poll, in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Guatemala ranks highest with 87% of the population enjoying themselves a lot the previous day, and 91% smiling and laughing a lot (an average of the two gives 89%). Indonesia is a very close second (also 89%), followed by Mexico, Vietnam, Paraguay, and the Philippines, all on 87%. The highest entry of any European country is Iceland with 86%, ranking them a respectable 7th. The next best is Denmark on 83% and ranking 17th. The United States (43rd at 77%) and the United Kingdom (42nd on 78%) lag behind, but even they do better than the apparently ‘happiest in the world’ Finns.

At least a little bit of both types of happiness, please

For any claim to being either the happiest country on Earth or the most resource efficient at producing happiness, then surely that country should do well on more than just one narrowly defined type of happiness? If we were to consider an average of life evaluation and moment-to-moment happiness, then the happiest country would be Iceland, not Finland. Under this combined happiness assessment, Guatemala, who in the evaluative sense are about 40th, jump to 7th place, and El Salvador makes it to 13th position (see table 1). Countries other than Finland start to look like they might have more promising claims on being the happiest country in the world.

Both types of happiness are important to most people. Of course we want to feel good when we reflect upon our life achievements, but we would also like to enjoy ourselves day-to-day. Whilst these two types of happiness are clearly related, they have different determinants.

Evaluative happiness tends to correlate more strongly with achieving social yardsticks. That means living in line with cultural expectations, such as having a high status job, a high income, good health, and financial stability. As such, countries with higher economic achievements tend to have higher levels of evaluative happiness.

Moment-to-moment happiness, on the other hand, depends more on what we spend our time doing and who with. If we have what we believe is a respectable job but spend a lot of our time working alone or with a controlling boss, then we are unlikely to feel happy during our days.

Extending moment-to-moment happiness to the Happy Planet Index too

The HPI could also be extended to incorporate the moment-to-moment type of happiness into the calculation. When considering both life evaluation and moment-to-moment happiness alongside life expectancy and carbon footprint, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, cement their positions as being efficient long and happy life-making countries, ranking 1st, 2nd, 3rd respectively.

(Unfortunately, the Gallup World Poll does not cover Vanuatu, and the data on moment-to-moment happiness there uses a very different question. In Vanuatu, respondents are asked to score their happiness yesterday from 0-10, rather than being simply asked a yes/no question. Given the mean score in Vanuatu for this question was 8.5 out of 10, one can imagine they would do pretty well as well.)

El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua all have decent life expectancies and experience a lot of happiness of both kinds. They also use less than, or only slightly more than, their fair share of resources to achieve it. In Costa Rica, for example, life expectancy is just as high as in the United States, yet they do better on the combined happiness measure. And they manage all this with a carbon footprint more than four times smaller. Costa Rica is no happiness accident – they abolished their army in 1949 and chose to invest in the health and education of citizens. Costa Rica also has an active reforestation programme.

Sweden, still the highest ranking high income country, is now 9th instead of 2nd, and Guatemala, along with the Philippines and Honduras, blast into the top 10, up from 16th, 21st, and 13th respectively. Nordic countries still perform reasonably well, but Finland now comes in at 38th – now much lower than the United Kingdom, whereas before they were similarly placed (at 17th and 19th respectively).

As a goal for policy, we need holistic conceptions of progress and to recognise that other countries might be doing things better

However, it shouldn’t just stop with these two types of happiness. As important as they both are, they don’t draw out a sense of whether a person’s happiness is either meaningful or sustainable. Sometimes things that make us think and feel good about ourselves in the present, such as acquiring a faster/bigger/better thing than we used to have, are devoid of deeper meaning beyond basic pleasure. They also deplete our capacity to experience happiness in the future. That’s why the HPI is such an essential development in capturing the sustainable component of what is important to a life well lived. But we also need to incorporate other indicators of wellbeing, such as eudaimonia, which, among other things, reflects purpose or meaning seeking.

There have been important shifts in looking beyond traditional metrics of success, like the size of an economy, which fail to capture what matters to people in their everyday life. International indices, like the HPI, that compare countries across meaningful outcomes are an essential part of redefining progress. Some countries are making real shifts in this area by thinking about progress in a holistic way, not just in considering happiness, however narrowly defined, but in developing multidimensional frameworks and embedding them into their decision making.

What’s important is that in broadening our definitions of progress, the usual happiness suspects, like Finland, or the economic powerhouses, like United States, do less well. This might be challenging to accept when our own countries look more like Finland or the US than they do El Salvador. However, the truth is there is plenty to learn about the good life from cultures that don’t look like our own and broadening our understanding of progress will help realise that.


Christopher Boyce is a guest writer for Hot or Cool.

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