Reluctantly happy

Reluctantly happy

A town in Finland is the happiest place on the planet. Not everyone is ecstatic about the idea

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The image of the Finns as a somewhat gloomy, sardonic people is not one that is easily shed, even by the Finns themselves.

Kauniainen, a town with about 9,600 residents, we are told, is the happiest place on earth. The logic behind this declaration by the Finnish municipality’s mayor is incontrovertible: Finland was named the happiest country on earth by a survey by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a second survey found the Kauniainen-ese to be the most joyous of Finns. Yet, reportedly, there are those in Finland and Kauniainen who aren’t all smiles.

The image of the Finns as a somewhat gloomy, sardonic people is not one that is easily shed, even by the Finns themselves. Academics in Helsinki, for example, immediately questioned the UN survey’s premise: After all, what is happiness? The term’s ambiguity — especially in a country where a common proverb is “if someone smiles at you on the street, they are either crazy, drunk or a foreigner” — does invite a healthy, deadpan scepticism. And then there is the fact that happiness is viewed as a commonplace, even boring ambition. “All happy families are alike,” said Leo Tolstoy at the outset of Anna Karenina, and gave birth to the cliché which concluded with the implication that we are only interesting in our respective miseries.

There are many “indicators” that a survey can use to measure happiness — wealth, social welfare schemes, social harmony, leisure time, work satisfaction — and Finland certainly does well on most such proxies. The more patriotic of Finns can also now boast that the melancholy imposed by geography has been overcome by a state and society that care for its people. Kauniainen, otherwise a fairly non-descript town, could even advertise its ecstasy to rake in tourist revenue. But perhaps the reason the people there are happy is because they have embraced the cold and dark of Scandinavia, and because they stay calm, don’t preen about the status bestowed on them of paradise, and even appreciate the irony of being unsmiling and joyous at the same time. The key to happiness, perhaps, lies in the ability to laugh at the very idea of happiness.