The Origin of Happiness?

Text: Ryan Cheng

Illustration: Anna Koskela

How do you define happiness? According to the 2021 World Happiness Report, Finland ranked as the happiest country in the world for the fourth time in a row. The report credited Finnish citizens for strong communal support and mutual trust, which has been especially crucial during the pandemic. Furthermore, the Finns widely believed they were free to make their own choices with minimal suspicion of government corruption. All of these were important factors contributing to their overall happiness.

As an exchange student from Hong Kong, this was one of the most crucial reasons for me to prioritize the University of Helsinki as my exchange destination. Back in Hong Kong, different aspects of life made me feel perplexed, and the chance of traveling to a Nordic country enabled me to escape reality. This has also been a golden opportunity for me to explore the definition of happiness.

Arriving here in winter time the sun is up only for seven hours and the sky turned dark already at 4 pm. I often joke with my friends that dinner is coming soon, not long after we finish our lunch! To be honest, it is quite dispiriting to rarely see the sunlight. Surprisingly I met a Finnish girl here, who told me that many Finns she knew often suffer from seasonal depression, due to the extremely long nighttime in winter and long daytime in summer! This made me question my beliefs: don’t most Finnish people feel blessed all the time?

However, I gradually realized what “Finnish happiness” is. To begin with, family life seems to be a core value in Finnish happiness. During my first two weeks here, I was often dissatisfied with the early closing time of shops and museums, given it is something that would rarely happen in Hong Kong. According to my new Finnish friend, apart from the slow pace of life, Finns place huge emphasis on work-life balance. Many Hongkongers (the name people from Hong Kong call themselves) try to relax themselves from the intense working environment by traveling around during weekends. Finns on the other hand might prefer staying at home, playing with children in their backyard garden and treasuring every precious moment with their beloved ones.  

”   Undoubtedly, Finland might be a utopia for many Hongkongers like us, who have lived a hectic and chaotic lifestyle with inadequate work-life balance, lack of leisure time and even strong distrust within society and towards the government.”

The healthy lifestyle of Finns also constitutes their happiness. Given Helsinki is a walking city, I love wandering around the great streets and small alleys, breathing the clean air that is intangible in Hong Kong. Season is never a barrier to the sports-crazy Finns as I often see them running even on snowy days and on the slippery ground on sunny days, let alone skiing and skating! Visiting the Sports Museum of Finland, I discovered the name of our student information system is not merely a name – “Sisu” is a Finnish word that denotes grit, resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. The word has no equivalent in English. Not only does it represent the traits of Finnish sportsmen, but also a national spirit which has defined Finland in different challenging but historical moments, ever since the country gained independence from Russia. A significant part of Finnish happiness is thus determined by how they embrace the difficulties ahead. 

Apart from physiological and psychological happiness, the Nordic welfare state model is notably essential to Finnish happiness. Taking a lecture related to the welfare state in Northern Europe, I realized that the model heavily stresses equality and fairness in income and wealth distribution. The public sector plays a crucial role in society as a welfare service provider, providing a safety net for the underprivileged, unemployed and retirees. A 40-year-old Finnish immigrant from Hong Kong told us that many overseas students come here to study and work with free tuition fees and generous housing allowances, while older generations arrive here for free medical services and other retirement benefits. Staying here for four years might even guarantee permanent citizenship. Furthermore, as stated by the above report, Finns have enormous mutual trust within society and they trust the government, given its reputation as one of the least corrupt countries and its political freedom as a socialist democratic state. When the government suggested its citizens stay at home and wear a mask outside, most Finnish people have complied, which might partly explain the generally lower number of cases in Finland compared to other parts of Europe. This nearly “perfect” socialist economic model might contribute to Finnish satisfaction and the high living standard.

”I have lived such a busy lifestyle for over 21 years, but I still miss it and find it a bit hard to adapt to the “slowed-down” Finnish lifestyle. ”

Undoubtedly, Finland might be a utopia for many Hongkongers like us, who have lived a hectic and chaotic lifestyle with inadequate work-life balance, lack of leisure time and even strong distrust within society and towards the government. In the past two years, many of us felt undelighted, powerless, and even hopeless, in the face of social instability and the COVID-19 pandemic. The migration rate is surging. It’s not as if I could forget the astonishing but lamenting scenes of groups of families and friends saying farewell to their beloved ones when I arrived at the Hong Kong airport. It has been a long time since I found a smiling face in Hong Kong. 

However, after being here for a few weeks, I have done some slow-paced reflection on my life. Ironically, I began to realize that my birthplace was irreplaceable to me. I have lived such a busy lifestyle for over 21 years, but I still miss it and find it a bit hard to adapt to the “slowed-down” Finnish lifestyle. Though the same stressful situations don’t change at all, I feel like Hong Kong is still the place that not only contains my collective memories but also will bring me long-term happiness. We all understand that there is no utopia in reality and each place has its own problems to deal with, even Finland. While Hongkongers might learn from Finnish happiness, it is also crucial to note that happiness has many definitions, and everything depends on how people from different countries treat happiness. This does not necessarily mean I would be happier studying in Finland, for example. But If Hongkongers could learn some things from the sisu-spirit, maybe I could see more smiles in Hong Kong in the future.

All in all, we can be “happy” at different stages of life. As children, we are delighted by sweets; as teenagers, we are delighted by our friends; as adults, we are delighted by our family; as the elderly, we are delighted by our retirement lives. Additionally, we can be “happy” under a wide variety of contexts. Happiness is a complex topic. Happiness can be simple, but other times it can be quite complicated.


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