What is happiness, and how can you be more happy? Experts from the happiest countries share their tips

Photo illustration of a few people in cold weather gear, snow-laden trees, mossy woods and Finland's flag.

Photo illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

What does it take to be considered the world’s happiest country? For the sixth year in a row, Finland has earned that accolade, winning the top spot yet again in the annual World Happiness Report, which makes this determination by measuring things like healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support, low corruption, generosity and freedom. The United States ranked 15th in happiness, while Afghanistan was found to be the least happy country.

So does Finland understand something about happiness that other countries have yet to figure out?

“In general, I would say that we Finns are both surprised and proud of this achievement,” Kristian Wahlbeck, a psychiatrist and lead adviser with Mieli Mental Health Finland, said in an email to Yahoo News. “We don’t perceive us as being especially happy, and wouldn’t have thought about it without this international research.”

What makes people in Finland so happy?

A couple in silhouette stands facing the northern lights from the edge of a body of water.

A couple watches the northern lights over Lake Kuusamo in Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, Finland. Access to nature is considered sacred and “everyman’s right” in Finland, the “world’s happiest country.” (Getty Images)

Wahlbeck said Finns tend to find happiness in “the small things,” like family and good friendships, spending time outdoors or enjoying a good cup of coffee.

“Many Finns find happiness in their everyday life,” he said.

Nature plays a central role, despite the country’s long, dark winters and often frigid temperatures. A Finnish law known as “Everyman’s Right,” for example, dictates that “all people whether residing in Finland or just visiting have the right to enjoy nature anywhere in the Finnish countryside regardless of land ownership.”

But is it really possible to quantify what, exactly, makes people in Finland and other top-ranking countries so happy? Meik Wiking — CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark and author of several wildly popular books on Danish lifestyle including “The Little Book of Hygge,” which helped popularize the Danish concept of cozy living and taking pleasure in small comforts — spends his days attempting to do just that.

All five Nordic countries consistently rank in the top 10 on the World Happiness Report; Denmark, where Wiking is from, was named the second happiest this year. In an email to Yahoo News, Wiking said there are three main reasons why Finland, Denmark and other Nordic countries tend to rank so highly in happiness: work-life balance, taxes and trust.

“The Nordic countries have some of the best balances between work and family life: short workdays, paid vacation, subsidized childcare, maternity and paternity leave,” Wiking said.

Of taxes, Wiking said Nordic countries “convert their wealth into wellbeing” by investing in programs that enable all citizens to “thrive socially, physically and mentally.” Health care and care for the elderly are free, college is free, child care is heavily subsidized and unemployment benefits are readily available for anyone who needs them.

“In the Nordic countries, we also pay some of the highest taxes in the world. However, people in the Nordics often say that [we] are happy not despite the high taxes but because of them,” Wiking said.

“By paying our taxes, we are investing in quality of life — which is of greater importance than individual wealth. 88% of people living in Denmark say they are happily paying their taxes.”

Trust — in authorities, institutions and the state as well as in one’s neighbors — also plays an integral role. In addition to freedom of speech and low levels of corruption, Finns have a lot of trust in one another. A recent “lost wallet” experiment, for example, tested the honesty of citizens in different cities around the world — primarily Europe — by dropping wallets in parks, parking lots and malls and seeing how many wallets made it home. In Helsinki, 11 out of 12 wallets were returned to their owners.

What is happiness?

Black-and-white image of several dozen people in military gear with rifles on skis standing in a row.

Finnish troops on the Russo-Finnish border in October 1939. “Sisu,” a Finnish term that’s roughly synonymous with grit or resilience, is often credited with helping the Finns maintain independence from the superior Soviet forces during World War II. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The good news is that by these criteria, happiness doesn’t need to be unique to native Finns. When immigrants took part in the World Happiness Report survey for the first time, in 2018, their results were “virtually identical” to that of the overall population — refuting the notion that being happy is something “intrinsically Finnish.”

In fact, John Helliwell, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and co-editor of the World Happiness Report, told the BBC that the study isn’t really about the emotion of happiness at all — or at least not how we usually think of happiness. It’s more tied to the contentment that comes from a high quality of life.

“Happiness is not just about the emotional part, i.e., feeling joyful and happy,” Wahlbeck explained. “There is also a deeper side to it, a feeling of living a meaningful life and having a good quality of life.”

Wiking said happiness is a broad concept. It can mean different things to different individuals, but among the happiest people there tend to be areas of overlap.

“We use ‘happiness’ as an umbrella term in our research, which encompasses individuals’ life satisfaction, daily emotional experience and sense of purpose,” he said. “Happiness can be defined as the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.”

Many associate Finland not with overt gaiety but with “sisu” — a quintessentially Finnish trait that’s roughly synonymous with grit or resilience, or the ability to persevere with dignity even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s been used to explain the small nation’s ability to stave off invading Soviet forces and maintain independence during World War II. In 1940 the New York Times ran the headline “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.”

This quiet strength may be emblematic of Finland and help explain the country’s ability to survive and even thrive, but it’s a departure from what many people would think of as happiness. One immigrant from Zimbabwe who has lived in Finland for decades as a teacher and business owner recently told the New York Times that when she returns to her home country — which was ranked the fourth most unhappy country in the World Happiness Report this year — she’s struck by the “good energy” that comes, the Times writes, “not from the satisfaction of sisu but from exuberant joy.”

“What I miss the most, I realize when I enter Zimbabwe, are the smiles,” she said, among “those people who don’t have much, compared to Western standards, but who are rich in spirit.”

‘The dark side of happiness’

A colorful row of houses along a water bank lined with sailboats.

Houses in the Nyhavn area of Copenhagen, Denmark. Denmark ranked as the second-happiest country in the 2023 World Happiness Report. (Getty Images)

Even within Finland and other countries ranking high in happiness surveys, there’s also what Wiking refers to as “the dark side of happiness.”

“Not everyone in Finland is happy,” Wahlbeck said. “Suicide rates are going down among the well-off, but not among Finns in lower socioeconomic groups. Suicide rates are high among people with multiple simultaneous problems: loneliness, poverty, mental and other health issues, and alcohol or drug dependency. We need to become much better in preventing marginalization.”

Wiking calls it “the suicide-happiness paradox”: Happier countries tend to have slightly higher suicide rates. As he explained in a TedxCopenhagen talk in 2016, the same pattern also exists in the United States: Individual states ranking higher in happiness surveys also have slightly higher rates of suicide. Hawaii, for example, ranked as the second-happiest state in the U.S. but had the fifth-highest suicide rate.

So why isn’t the world’s happiest country at the bottom of the list for suicide rates? Wiking said it likely has a lot to do with the fact that it can be more painful to be unhappy in an otherwise happy society; if everyone around you seems happy and fulfilled, being the odd person out can feel even more isolating. It’s similar to the reason, Wiking argues, that, surprisingly, “there’s a higher risk of suicide in an area with low unemployment than high unemployment.”

“It might be easier to find a new job where there is low unemployment than high unemployment, but there is also a lot more social stigma. If you are the only one around who is unemployed, then you’re not going to blame the economy — you might start to question yourself,” Wiking said. “Social comparisons matter.”

How to be happier in your own life

People walk along and across a store-lined road with green-and-yellow street cars.

A crowded street in Helsinki. The capital of Finland ranked as “most honest” in a recent “lost wallet test” in major cities. (Getty Images)

Happiness can be hard to maintain if it’s sought solely through quick jolts of euphoria, like getting a promotion or accomplishing a goal. Psychologists refer to it as the “hedonic treadmill”: Major life events can cause temporary spikes in extreme happiness or sadness, but eventually people tend to return to the baseline level of happiness they had before that life event took place.

Instead, Wiking suggests recognizing that happiness is an ongoing process.

“Perhaps we need to consider how to turn the idea of the pursuit of happiness into the happiness of the pursuit,” he said. “People on a quest for something they find meaningful tend to be happier; they know that happiness is the by-product of the process and not a pot of gold at the finish line.”

For a happier life, Wiking said, leaning on community, friends and family is important, as well as staying mentally and physically healthy through little acts like going on a walk with a loved one. Learning to decouple wealth and well-being, Wiking added, is also something Danes and other people in Nordic countries are “exceptionally good at” that others can learn from. “After our basic needs are met, we realize that more money doesn’t lead to happiness, and instead we focus on what brings us a better quality of life.”

“Look for happiness in the small things,” Wahlbeck suggested. “Being active, meeting friends, living a healthy life, being mindful about your environment and learning new things bring about happiness.”

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