Finlandia: An ideal country?

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Following the collapse of the Tsars in Russia after the October revolution, a lesser-known product of Bolshevik idealism was produced: Finland. With the country celebrating its centenary on Wednesday 6 December this year, it is perhaps time to look at the forgotten Nordic nation, and why, despite being plunged into constant darkness for half a year, Finland is ranked as one of Europe’s happiest countries.

An inhabited lakeside near Jyväskylä, one of 187,000

Aside from a stable economy and good living standards, some have suggested that the root of Finland’s happiness is the link between environment, industry and nature. Excluding the reindeer herding of the Sami people, as it occurs across Scandinavia and north-west Russia, some of the largest revenue connected to natural resources comes from the agricultural sector, with forestry making up 13.1% of all industry. The connection to nature is not only evident in industry, but is more apparent at a domestic level. Approximately 500 million kg of berries and a staggering two billion kg of mushrooms grow in Finland’s forests every year, and the tradition of picking wild berries and mushrooms remains as popular as ever, despite urbanisation. One study shows that 56% of Finns, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, go to pick forest berries at least seven times each summer. In the region of Kainuu, in north-eastern Finland, each household picks an average of almost 60 kg of berries a year. Since it tops the Environmental Performance Index, Finland is ranked as the greenest country in the world with the least amount of pollution. If a lake is defined to be a body of standing water larger than 500 square metres, then there are 187,888 lakes in Finland to be fished. It is possible that this strong bond with nature has led to Finland being a more content nation.

Helsinki harbour from the newly constructed harbour side swimming complex

As well as this, Finland has become the first country in Europe to pay its unemployed citizens an unconditional monthly sum, in a social experiment that has been watched around the world amid gathering interest in the idea of a universal basic income, as supported by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk. Under the two-year nationwide pilot scheme, which began this year, 2,000 unemployed Finns aged 25 to 58 receive a guaranteed sum of €560 (£475). The income replaces their existing social benefits and will be paid even if they find work. Whilst not enough to cover all living costs, it prevents utter destitution whilst allowing Finns to develop businesses or to study. As Aditya Chakrabortty reported in the Guardian, this contrasts greatly with the negative stigmas found in other nations that “social security isn’t a safety net for all, but a cash-starved and demoralised triage system for the lazy and feckless”. It appears that Finland is one of the few countries in the world to view poverty as no more than a lack of money, and actively encourages self-help whilst providing the resources to do so.

This is not the only example of trailblazing Finnish innovation, however; during the 1930s Alvar Aalto pushed forward architecture and furniture design, with his most famous chair design providing the inspiration for the more modern IKEA furniture. Electronics and software development have both also been essential in the development of Finland’s identity. Nokia, along with Supercell and Rovio — developers of the Clash of Clans and Angry Birds franchises, respectively — all hail from Finland, possibly explaining why in 2014 Finland topped the rankings for embracing new IT for a second consecutive year. Finland is also renowned for its university prowess. According to Bloomberg, Finland ranks first in research personnel, third in research and development and postsecondary education, and fourth in all innovation categories. Perhaps this is due to its education system, which routinely ranks amongst the top 10 in the world, alongside Singapore, Switzerland and Japan. Helsinki is one of the few capitals in the world to have a dedicated design museum. It displays anything and everything iconic, from orange-handled scissors to hanging ball chairs to Princess Leia’s necklace from the closing ceremony of A New Hope, designed by Lapponia jewellery. This atmosphere of creativity has led to Helsinki becoming one of the world’s most liveable cities.

In the suburbs of Helsinki near the marina moorings

Whilst Finland’s happiness may not be due to the reasons above — the country also leads the world in per capita coffee and milk consumption, saunas, and heavy metal bands — as the forgotten nation of Scandinavia it is an intriguing and inspirational case study to look to at as an example of how a country can develop over the course of a century, from an ex-Swedish and Russian occupied state, to, according to the Social Progress Index, the most socially progressive country in the world.