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How Finland embraced being ‘world’s happiest nation’

By: Agence France Presse March 22,2021 - 06:54 AM

An aerial view shows a man country-skiing in Sundom aerea, near Vaasa, in the middle of the archipelago UNESCO classified, on the frozen Bothnia sea (Baltic Sea), on March 23, 2018. – In the just released 2018 UN World Happiness Report, Finland took the top spot followed by its Scandinavian neighbours and Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand. (Photo by Olivier MORIN / AFP)

HELSINKI, Finland  – Once notorious for its bland food and long, harsh winters, Finland’s repeated success in the annual happiness rankings has helped transform the country’s global reputation, boosting tourism and business.

The UN-sponsored World Happiness Report elicited some raised eyebrows when it first placed Finland at the top of its listings in 2018: many of the Nordic country’s 5.5 million people freely describe themselves as taciturn and prone to melancholy, and admit to eyeing public displays of joyfulness with suspicion.

“When I first heard — and I’m not alone, I would say — I had a big laugh,” television producer Tony Ilmoni told AFP on the still-snowy streets of the capital Helsinki on Friday, when Finland was crowned the happiest nation on earth for the fourth year running.

But the worldwide survey in fact seeks to quantify individuals’ personal freedom and satisfaction with their lives, using survey data from 149 countries alongside measures such as GDP, social support and perceptions of corruption.

Finland excels with its quietly world-class public services, low levels of crime and inequality, and high levels of trust in authority.

“The basics are really good here: we don’t have anyone living in the streets, we do have unemployment but the health service works, the big things like that,” flower seller Riitta Matilainen told AFP.

“But we could be a bit more outgoing and joyful!”

The northern country’s long dark winters were once reputed to be behind high levels of alcoholism and suicide, but a decade-long public health drive has helped cut rates by more than half.

‘Who wouldn’t want to live here?’

For tourism and country-branding chiefs, the “world’s happiest” title has been a blessing they were quick to capitalise on.

“It’s a really powerful, emotional, evocative thing to say you’re the happiest country in the world. Why would anyone not want to live in the happiest country in the world?” said Joel Willans, a British digital marketer and creator of the “Very Finnish Problems” social media page, who has lived in Finland since the early 2000s.

“Awareness of Finland has grown during the past few years,” Paavo Virkkunen, head of Finland Promotion Services at Business Finland, told AFP.

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