In your face, Sweden!

Okay, that was probably uncalled for. As a patriotic former Finnish resident, I just wanted to point out that Finland finished two places ahead of Sweden in Forbes Magazine's totes important pseudo non-scientific study of the world's happiest countries. Sweden finished at #4, behind Denmark, Finland, and Norway.


Iceland finished in 23rd (I blame Halldór Laxness), but otherwise you might have noticed Nordic countries in places one, two, and three. Sweden, which is also a Nordic country, finished fourth. I'd blame gay marriage for Iceland's woes, but same-sex marriage is also legal in Sweden and Norway (Denmark and Finland only permit domestic partnerships). Forbes largely frames the Nordic countries' happiness as a by-product of wealth, which absolutely baffles me, particularly given the study's methodology:
"First [Gallup] asked subjects to reflect on their overall satisfaction with their lives, and ranked their answers using a 'life evaluation' score from 1 to 10. Then they asked questions about how each subject had felt the previous day. Those answers allowed researchers to score their 'daily experiences'--things like whether they felt well-rested, respected, free of pain and intellectually engaged. Subjects that reported high scores were considered 'thriving.' The percentage of thriving individuals in each country determined our rankings."
Rest. Respect. Comfort. Engagement.

I can see how income is correlated to those things, although per-capita GDP seems like an odd statistic to use (median income, anyone?). However, the causal relationship between wealth and happiness doesn't strike me as straightforward. Besides, the United States finished 14th. If it was really all about the Benjamins gayly coloured bridges, you'd think the U. S. would easily out-happy a social democracy whacked out on salmiakki. Perhaps we should look more carefully at Forbes' throw-away line about the “Scandinavian”[sic*] countries taking care of people's basic needs.

A modest retelling of my 10 months in Finland might shed some light on the situation.

In late 1998, I began investigating the possibility of studying in Helsinki the following academic year. Being me, I decided to enroll on my own, as opposed to following a bizarrely isolated exchange program. So, I contacted the University of Helsinki to apply as a visiting student. The confusion began as soon as I was accepted:

'How much do I owe you, and where do I send the check? Do I need to draw funds from a Finnish bank?'

'What in God's name are you talking about?'

'Tuition. How much is your tuition.'

'What in God's name are you talking about?!?'

Once we got past that little inter-cultural barrier, the next thing to do was to find an apartment. I ended up finding a place in Kontula, on Helsinki's far eastern fringe. I paid around $180 a month for a room in a three bedroom apartment. Because my apartment was multiple kilometers from the city center, I was forced to take a five minute walk down to the metro station, which was next to the shopping center that included two grocery stores, a bakery, the local library, one of many local day care centers, a liquor store, and several restaurants and bars. When I was feeling lazy, I'd wait up to ten minutes for a bus to the station. There, I would wait another five minutes to board a train for the twenty minute ride to the city. There, I could purchase a monthly student transit pass, which ate another $30 out of my bank account.

When I started at the University, I was subjected to the horrors of UniCafe, the restaurants run by the Helsinki University student union. As you can see from today's menu, life was tough. At Porthania this afternoon, there was a choice between bolognaise with minced meat and grated cheese, soya and vegetable pan, and chicken waldorfs[sic] salad. These cost students 2 Euros 60 (including a beverage and unlimited bread, salad, and potatoes). Students who sprung for the fried salmon with white wine sauce coughed up 4 Euros 20.

One of my first activities at school was to meet folks at Symbioosi, the biology student organization. I was at one party with my fellow students when it was time for me to catch the last bus back to my apartment. As it turned out, the woman I was talking to also needed to catch the last bus back to her apartment. Unfortunately, she lived in what she described as an urban hellscape, surrounded by violent criminals, asphalt, noise, and the foul stench of dying hope. Let's just say it was surprising to learn that we both lived in the same complex. I would later learn that my friend's impression of our neighborhood were largely accepted as fact throughout the country. Our neighborhood was infamous. I was apparently living in some sort of Nordic Cabrini-Green.

A typical Finnish hellscape, showing the Kivikko neighborhood of Kontula, in eastern Helsinki. Note the ravages of urbanization.

The multiple kilometers of lit cross country ski trails don't show up on the above picture. Nor do the fields where I played pesäpallo with other folks in the neighborhood who ranged in age between about 6 and 60. I do recall taking batting practice on that field, though.

I spent a lot of time watching and playing sports in Finland. I certainly made a habit of watching sports on my many trips around the country on reduced fare train tickets (although even well off people didn't pay too much for public transportation). There were trains everywhere. After one of my friends from the US excitedly told some Finnish acquaintances that he'd never rode on a train before, I remember one of them looking at him and stating that she'd never rode in a car before, so there. And really, why bother with cars, what with the trains and buses, and bike paths connecting everything?

As I was in Helsinki for the better part of the year, I needed to go to the doctor a few times. I was really, really nervous about this, what with my American health insurance and all. However, given that I had the sniffles, I was managed to be seen by the doctor right away. For free. Without an appointment. This happened a few times, actually.

When I wasn't going to the Finnish film archives to see cheap movies, taking in concerts or museums at a student discount off of essentially nothing (or often times for free), I did make feeble attempts to socialize. I went to a few events organized by the Karelian osakunta. Given my Pohjanmaan (Ostrobothnian) ancestry, this made a great deal of sense (Ostrobothnia and Karelia are basically the Finnish equivalent of, um.... they're really different. During the 1930s, a handful of folks in Ostrobothnia kidnapped the third (ex-)president of Finland in an attempt to "return" him to the Soviet Union, or at least Karelia. It was sort of as if Tea Baggers accused Harry Reid of Communism, and then drove him to Massachusetts).

Owing to my limited grasp of the Finnish language and cultural differences, my forays with the Karelians were not smashing successes (although as I am from Minnesota, there was much talk of hockey). Mostly the Karelians seemed confused:

'I hear college students have it bad in the US.'

'Yes, college can be very expensive.'

'How small are your stipends.'


'How much do American students get each month.'

'In America, we typically pay a good deal of money to study at college.'

'What?!? Yours is a bizarre country.'


Taxes in Finland are high. Very high. The government is big. Very big. While there's not socialism, Finnish society is most definitely flavored by social-democracy. The same could be said of the other Nordic nations. They also happen to have GDPs near that of the United States. Yet somehow, surveys of the Nordic nations show higher levels of rest, respect, comfort, and engagement than the US. Color me unconfused.

*Finland is not a Scandinavian country. It is, however, a Nordic and Fenno-Scandian nation.

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