Finland Operates As If It's A Well-Being Lab And Its Citizens, Guinea Pigs


It was with much astonishment, both in the country and abroad, that Finland came in at number one in the UN’s 2018 World Happiness Report, a global ranking based on research by Gallup World Poll. Finland has long been dedicated to improving the wellbeing of its citizens. Like other Nordic countries it has a robust welfare system that champions both financial and social equality. But Finland is unique in that it has, for many years, operated almost as if the entire country was a wellbeing laboratory and its citizens lab rats. In this lab the state has played the role of scientist, intent on improving the comfort and security of the nation’s five million residents through thorough research and a near constant series of experiments covering health, education, employment and more. “One often forgets that Finland was one of the poorest countries in Europe,” says Juha Leppänen, “So the only way for a country like this – very remote, with horrible weather conditions – to be successful was to focus on its people.” By many definitions, Finland has achieved success as a nation: it is among the wealthiest countries in the world by GDP per capita; the maternal mortality rate is one of the lowest on the planet; and the poverty rate is low, as is the crime rate. So what is there left to do but pursue – and perhaps even perfect – happiness? Beginning in the 1960s, the state began tracking the health of each of its citizens from birth until death using their personal identity code, recording every hospitalisation, outpatient treatment and prescription and analysing the data. (Healthcare is managed at a municipal level in Finland but the state has been working to centralise the data collected on each citizen at a national level.) “We use this data to monitor the population’s health – how many people have diabetes or how many people are dying from cardiovascular disease.” Because the population of the country is small, the institute is often able to spot patterns. Yet all this experimentation – and monitoring and research – means that Finland has, for quite some time now, been fine-tuning its society. It has had a knock-on effect on health, education and employment – and yes, even happiness. It’s not just the fact that the state plays such an active role in its citizens’ lives that contributes to the nation’s wellbeing but the idea that Finns, by and large, feel secure as a result. Most Finns don’t see the state’s work as an infringement on their freedom but an advancement of it. “If the fundamental basics needed for a good life are looked after by the state, then the average citizen is free to focus on their own pursuits, whatever they may be: time spent with family, work that offers a sense of purpose or the security to try new things. Finns have every reason to be the happiest people in the world – whether or not they are willing to show it.

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