December 6th: Finland, the happiest country in the world, thanks to trust

The 6th of December is Finland’s Independence Day, so it is now tradition that the advent calendar entry that day is somehow related to this beautiful, if cold and somewhat mysterious, country. How on earth does the country consistently top all kinds of international league tables? Perhaps the most intriguing data point this year came from an otherwise interesting FT article. On a map showing the suitability of different countries for human life, it showed Finland’s current climate as “Low”.

Climate clearly isn’t everything, then. Definitely not destiny. Maybe a difficult climate even builds character and the kinds of communities and institutions that are positive for human flourishing? [My hypothesis is, for example, that Finns are more forward-thinking, on average, than people in other countries, because natural selection will have weeded out those individuals who were not willing to work hard in the summer and autumn months to secure their livelihoods in the winter and spring. Would love for someone to test this!]

The World Happiness Report from 2020 provides some interesting further light into the success of the Nordic countries — all of which come out at the top — in its annual rankings. [Note that, despite the report’s name, the scores actually refer to overall life satisfaction, not “happiness” (which, at least in psychology and many languages, is more associated with moment-to-moment feelings of elation).] The key conclusion as to the root causes of Nordic contentment in this report is as follows:

[The] Nordic model started from low levels of inequality and mass education [at the beginning of the century], which transformed into social and institutional trust, and later allowed for the formation of well-functioning welfare state institutions.

A key word here is “trust”. If one were to look for the one ingredient that explains happy families, communities, organisations, countries or regions, it is surely trust. And that topic is surely worth its entire book, or several. Today’s blog merely looks at some of the data and the criticality of trust in explaining how countries have thrived, or not, during the COVID-19 pandemic. [There’s also a strong link between trust and GDP per capita and trust and overall life satisfaction.]

Finland is among the countries that has weathered the pandemic relatively well. Its cumulative loss of real GDP since the 4th quarter of 2019 (relative to a flat line) and its death toll from COVID-19 are both among the lowest in the world. In the chart, this is indicated by the fact that Finland is towards the top (on the Y-axis) on the left-hand chart (GDP) and the bottom on the right hand (deaths with COVID per million people).

Both charts have the same X-axis: a measure of trust among each country’s population. The World Values Survey asks people the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people? Respondents are given two options to choose from: “Most people can be trusted” and “Need to be very careful”. The X-axis in the chart shows the difference between the proportion who were trustful and those who were careful.

In Finland, a remarkable 68% of people said that they mostly trust others, while around 30% said that you have to be very careful. In contrast, for example, those statistics for the United Kingdom are 40% (trustful) and 60% (careful), and United States’s statistics are 37% (trustful) and 63% (careful). Overall, for the 83 countries included in the survey, the average proportion saying that most people can be trusted was 27%, while 71% suggested that you need to be very careful when dealing with others.

And — as the chart shows — these differences matter, not just for general GDP and life satisfaction (as mentioned above), but also COVID-19 outcomes. Again, there will be a huge number of interrelated reasons why this is the case, but the (fascinating analysis in the) latest World Happiness Report certainly concludes that higher levels of trust have allowed communities, such as those in Finland, to reduce the transmission of the virus through more effective public health measures.

I therefore remain somewhat aghast at the characterisation of one Leeds councillor when referring to Finland as “frozen wasteland”. [This was in the context of recounting lessons learned from Finland’s unversal basic income experiment.] I appreciate that not everything, or even a lot of, what Finland does could be transferred to another country as a policy prescription; but I do think that understanding the country better is valuable.




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Tera Allas

Tera Allas

I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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