Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty: Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part Two)

Part Two: No Expendable Finns

This is the second of a four-part essay exploring how the Finns may have stumbled upon happiness even though they don’t seem too impressed by the happiness award they received in Feburary from the United Nations. In Part One I proposed that the Finns have been  more focused on survival than happiness and that a trait called “sisu” (grit, resilience, tenacity, and stick-to-it-ness especially for the sake of one’s fellow Finns) has been more useful to their survival as a nation than happiness.

Sisu requires sacrifice and is really bigger than happiness; however, sisu itself can be an important contributor to happiness. One reason the Finns are not big into flattery and compliments is that they view both as unnecessary counterfeits compared to the natural satisfaction that comes from real personal growth and achievement. And I believe the Finns have learned that satisfaction is still deeper and more lasting when accomplishment is shared.  In this section I will argue that in the 73 years of peace since World War II ended, the Finns’ inclusive no-Finn-left-behind mindset has especially led to programs and policies which have at least made it possible for the Finns to pursue happiness.

At the end of World War II, the Finns surveyed their broken nation and collectively agreed that they could afford to lose no more Finns. Everyone’s needs must be considered. Sacrifice and compromise must be made, consensus ardently strived for, individual greed restrained, and equity established.

The first test of this resolve came in dealing with long lines of Karelian refugees fleeing Russian rule and entering independent Finland on foot. In response, the Finnish government compensated these refugees for the loss of their homes with either land or money, and Finnish citizens cooperated with what my mother tells me was a government mandate that they share any home with more rooms than occupants. My mother’s family turned over their two upstairs bedrooms to a 30-ish woman and her mother and their basement bedroom to a carpenter and his young son. All three families shared the kitchen and one bathroom.

This remarkable collaboration got Finland through several years of severe post-war housing shortages and helped the Karelians to assimilate despite the destitute condition in which they had arrived and the overall poverty of the entire nation.

The Finns then created a strong safety net and a mind-blowing list of human rights which currently include not just universal health care but guaranteed internet access, free higher education for life, month-long paid vacations for every citizen, and above all, a host of benefits for children, whom the Finns recognize as the greatest of their limited resources.

Collaborative Focus on Children

Support for Finnish children begins at birth with extended paid leave for both mothers and fathers of newborns. Finnish parents can then continue to receive financial compensation for staying home with their children or return to work and take advantage of government-paid day care and pre-schools provided by college-educated teachers. These care givers identify and treat many learning disabilities early and bridge the gap between high-risk and more privileged children before they ever begin formal schooling.

In 2014, my husband and I visited with many Finnish teachers in Finnish schools. We learned that there are often two teachers with a master’s degree in the classroom—one for group instruction and one for students needing extra individual attention, and teachers collaborate extensively (without many government-imposed standards) to find and share solutions for every child. The term “no child left behind” is not a political catchword but a completely unique way of thinking. If a few are not keeping up, classroom instruction slows down and proficient students work with those who are struggling until the entire class is ready to move on. The Finns don’t feel the need to isolate their “best and brightest” into “gifted and talented” programs so they can move faster. Rather, they turn such students into leaders by encouraging them to help others around them to succeed.

In our conversations these teachers repeatedly insisted that the goal of Finnish education has never been to produce the highest test scores in the world but rather to equip all students with the basic skills they need to survive and contribute to their community. In fact, Finnish students take no standardized tests until they are 15 years old. Thus, in 2000 when Finnish students scored at the top of the pile on the international PISA standardized tests, our educator friends told us they thought “surely there must have been a mistake.”

But as Finnish students have continued to perform well on the PISA tests, even the self-deprecating Finns have begun to acknowledge that their collaborative “survival for all” mindset has resulted, not just in survival, but in a high standard of living for a well-educated, high-functioning, highly creative population.

In fact, last year “in honor of Finland’s centenary celebrations,” an organization called Statistics Finland likely went out of its comfort zone to compile and publish a statistical report from independent sources showing some of Finland’s accomplishments. Trying to balance national pride with their discomfort with bragging and their desire for inclusiveness, they suggested, not that Finland is the happiest country, but that in many areas it is “among the best in the world” [emphasis added].

How Is Finland “Among the Best” in the World?

For example, the report states that Finland is the “most stable,” the “safest,” the “best govern[ed]” country in the world with the “least organized crime” and the “soundest banking system. It has the “most independent” judicial system, the freest elections, and the “third best press freedom in the world.”  Finland is the “fourth most innovative country” and second in “using information and communication technologies to boost” BOTH “competitiveness” AND “well-being.” And finally, according to the report, the Finns enjoy “the most personal freedom and choice in the world.”

Of course, much depends on how one defines freedom, and many Americans consider increased government programs a loss of personal freedom. Most Finns are well aware of but also puzzled by this American perspective because what they get in return for their taxes opens much opportunity for them. In her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, Anu Partanen argues this point especially regarding government-funded health care. Partanen suggests that companies, when freed from the tremendous burden of having to provide health care coverage for their employees, are more likely to stay financially afloat, and individuals have the option to leave unsatisfying jobs and start their own businesses. Similarly, Finland’s free-for-life higher education enables citizens to keep up with rapidly changing technology and even to re-train themselves for new careers if theirs become obsolete.

Has Equity Led to Happiness?

Perhaps the most important part of the statistical report is what it suggests about the Finns’ true feelings for their country. The Finns may poke fun of themselves on social media–especially when writing in English for their international friends to read. (See Part One for my example of this.) But according to the report, Finns are “the most satisfied with their life among Europeans” and the “second most common to have someone to rely on in case of need.” They trust their government, they have high consumer confidence in their economy, and they report low “excessive job strain.” They may still struggle too many months of the year from sunlight deprivation to be perpetually cheerful or alcohol free, but I believe many of them would agree with their president (see Part I) that they have done the best they could with their circumstances and that whatever happiness they can own up to is deeply connected to the solidarity they feel with each other.

In his centennial presidential speech, President Niinistö explained,

“’Together’ begins at home within our borders, in our communities. As a nation of 5.5 million people, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. . . . Equality between genders, in opportunities and in education provide the backbone for the resilience of our society. The backbone of what I have called participatory patriotism.”

My purpose is not to suggest that the United States try to copy everything about the Finnish system. What works for Finland would at least have to be modified for our system of federal and state governments and our many diverse populations. But as we search for solutions that fit our national circumstances, I believe we would be wise to consider that the Finns have significantly improved their overall standard of living by looking out for the most vulnerable among them.  And though their richest one percent can’t match the wealth of their US counterparts, most Finns view their low overall poverty rate and even lower child poverty rate as more important indicators of their country’s success.

It’s also worth noting that the strong Finnish safety net has not led to generational welfare or an attitude of government dependence. Most Finnish parents have small families and return to work outside the home despite government compensation for those who stay home with young children. In fact the economic problem Finland now faces is not generational welfare but rather, too few children to support an aging population.  Have the Finns become too fulfilled? Too interested in their careers to take time out for children?

If so, is a generous immigration policy the solution? Many Finns say yes, but the Finns have not yet achieved consensus on this issue for reasons we will discuss in Part Four. Any solution will undoubtedly require struggle, compromise, and transitional pains; but I believe one thing is certain. The Finns will do what they can to preserve their many human rights and maintain their current social services because in their view, those services have helped them through the last 73 years at least to achieve more happiness than they would have otherwise enjoyed.

To continue to Part Three, click here.

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