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Why Finland comes out on top on happiness and more

Why Finland comes out on top on happiness and more
A couple walks on a snow-covered street in Jyvaskyla, Finland, on Jan. 18. (Markku Ojala / EPA-EFE / REX)

When the U.N.’s 2019 World Happiness Report came out last month, Finland ranked on top for the second year in a row. Small Finland — about 75% the size of California with just 5.5 million people — consistently trounces the United States and other developed nations on ratings of life satisfaction, health, safety, governance, community and social progress.

As a result, Finland now has a cottage industry in sending its experts across the Atlantic to have their brains picked for quick fixes to America’s problems. But those fixes never really take root because the underlying reason Finns are faring so well is because we have a different mindset about success — one that’s based on equity and community.

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In the United States, happiness and success are perceived as individual pursuits, indeed, even competitive ones. In Finland, success is a team sport.

The Finnish education system is a microcosm of these differences. Many U.S. teachers have spent the last year striking and protesting that they’re underpaid, overworked and unhappy. And yet Finnish teachers, despite somewhat larger average class sizes and slightly lower average salaries, are quite content. More than 90% report being satisfied with their jobs, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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In the United States, happiness and success are perceived as individual pursuits, indeed, even competitive ones. In Finland, success is a team sport.


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One major difference is the rigorous training teachers get. Teaching in Finland is a highly respected and competitive profession. The selection process includes an entrance exam, an interview and being observed in some teaching-like activity. Only 1 in 10 make it into a master’s program in education.

Once teachers are certified, however, they are given a great deal of autonomy in planning lessons and running their classes. Schools operate off a flexible curriculum and aren’t forced to focus on standardized tests. Students in Finland only take one such test at the end of their secondary education, the National Matriculation Examination.

This is quite unlike American schools, where students are given standardized tests annually, and the results can affect a teacher’s career or even the whole school district’s funding. That puts intense, and unnecessary, pressure on teachers to achieve good test results.

In Finland, half of surveyed teachers claim they would quit if their job performance were to be determined by their students’ standardized test results. OECD education research also shows that granting schools more autonomy over the curriculum leads to not only happier teachers, but better student scores as well.

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Ultimately Finland’s education system works because its ethos is not one of individual teacher accountability or comparison between schools, but one of equity, community and shared success. In fact, this kind of success doesn’t necessarily correlate with wealth. While Finland is by no means struggling financially, its GDP per capita is lower than those of its neighboring Nordic countries, and much lower than that of the U.S. The difference is, in the words of Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, “the Finns are good at converting wealth into well-being.”

An education system that focuses on community over individuals is, however, not without its problems. Finnish schools have been criticized for prioritizing equity at the cost of excellence, as they focus their resources on not leaving anyone behind rather than nurturing extraordinary abilities. While this approach might hold back high achievers, traditionally, that’s been a trade-off the Finns have been willing to make.

The more equal a society is, the happier its citizens are. It’s well documented that as income inequality rises a country’s overall well-being goes down. Finland is ranked among the most equal of all the 36 OECD countries. This underpins not just the Finnish education system, but helps support overall high levels of trust in the country. Finns trust one another and, perhaps more impressively, they trust their government to support all vulnerable citizens.

Finland spends 31% of its GDP on its welfare state, the second-highest among the OECD. And although Finns pay some of the highest taxes worldwide, there is a transparency to the Finnish system that many other countries lack.

Every year the government makes public the tax data of all its citizens and corporations on what has come to be called National Envy Day. Where in the U.S., the wealthy go to great pains to keep their finances out of the public eye — and might brag privately about dodging taxes — in Finland most would be shamed if caught not paying their fair share. For instance, the CEO of SuperCell, a major mobile games company, said in 2014, “We’ve received a lot of help from society, and now it is our turn to pay back.”

This sense of community spirit and collaborative effort manages to stave off the resentment that taxes seem to foster in most of the rest of the world. If you can see what everyone else is doing, you perhaps don’t feel too hard done by.

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The lesson of Finland is that success isn’t about individual wealth, power or prestige — or even high national GDP or advanced technology. A country is successful when it meets the needs of its citizens and creates the conditions for people and communities to meet their full potential.

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The United States can learn a great deal from how Finland runs its schools, but more so from the Finnish attitude that underpins our collective success.

Jorma Ollila, the former chief executive and chairman of the Finnish technology company Nokia, is the co-author of “Against All Odds: Leading Nokia From Near Catastrophe to Global Success.”

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