Every year the United Nations releases its annual ranking of countries by happiness and nearly every year some Nordic nation tops the list. This year is no exception. Finland reigns again as the world's happiest country for the second year in the row.

The response to the ranking is equally predictable. Clever Finnish tourist authorities are leveraging their number one spot with a program offering a few lucky people a free summer vacation in Finland to "learn to be happy." (If you enjoy pine trees and saunas, definitely throw your hat in the ring.)

Other commentators are using the occasion to suggest that if you want to be happier you should move to Finland. Besides the fact that the country has low levels of immigration, one of the hardest to learn languages, and brutal winters, this advice is misguided for another very serious reason, according to an insightful blog post from Flickr founder and investor Caterina Fake: it misses the most important lesson of the whole ranking exercise.

Make the U.S. a little more like Finland

It's not that the idea that moving can make you happier is dumb. In fact, research shows that relocating is actually often a great way to influence your life satisfaction, and certain locations really do help people thrive. But for the reasons I mentioned above, moving to Finland really isn't a practical or scalable solution for the vast majority of us.

More than that though, moving also means abandoning your responsibility to make your own community -- and country -- into the kind of place that helps people be happy. The rankings suggest ways to do that, and they have nothing to do with installing saunas or introducing more people to the joys of cross country skiing and hygge.

There are probably lots of unique and complex cultural reasons why the Nordic countries top happiness rankings (their citizens' love of time in nature being one likely contender), but there is also an obvious, replicable reason people there are less miserable on average than people here. Thanks to good governance their lives are more secure and they don't live in mortal fear of losing their health insurance or waste tremendous mental energy on superhuman childcare juggles.

"What National Happiness means is that most people in Finland have enough to eat, are clothed and housed, have national daycare, a good education and national healthcare. That is what it means," Fake insists. "What Finland has-and this is significant- is the happiest (safest, healthiest, best cared for) POOR people in the world." 

And while the U.S. will never be Denmark or Finland, it is entirely possible that we could all work together to put a sturdy floor on human suffering in our own way, so that our national happiness isn't dragged down by anxiety over paying for essential medical care or securing decent schooling for the next generation of humans.

The lesson of these rankings isn't to pack your suitcase. Instead, get to work here at home. "Agitate for national healthcare, universally good schools, and a social safety net that catches all who fall," Fake urges.

Do you agree with her?

Published on: Mar 27, 2019
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