How can we be more Finnish? Last week, the World Happiness Report found that the Finns are officially the world’s happiest people for the second year running. Meanwhile, the UK has – improbably perhaps – risen five places, from 19th to 15th, while the US has dropped one place down to 19th. Those in South Sudan, unsurprisingly after years of intense civil war, are the unhappiest of all.
The report ranks countries on six variables that support wellbeing: income and GDP per capita; freedom to make life choices; trust in government and perceptions of corruption; healthy life expectancy; social support and generosity. The top 10 countries, which this year also included Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands, rank high in all six.
Short of forcibly dragging Santa’s sleigh from Lapland and somehow persuading the reindeers and the Northern Lights to move too, there’s little we can do to recreate Finland’s unique geography and culture. Nor can most of us do much to affect our weekly pay packets or government policy on incomes: the Finns pay high taxes for a social safety net.
But what I like about this report is that it also recognises other variables where we can make a difference: our freedom to make life choices, the extent of our social support network and how generous we are to others. Our happiness levels are not fixed. Actually, science and my experience show that we all have an ability to cultivate happiness.
As someone who suffered two major depressive episodes in my 30s, the first of which found me hospitalised and suicidal, I have taken time to find the strategies that help me to be calm and well. Initially, I was treated with medication and subsequently received cognitive behavioural therapy, which are still the NHS’s main approaches to treating depression and anxiety.
My argument here is not to disregard either of those approaches. But I do think that there has been a third leg on the stool of my recovery, one that might offer wider pointers – and that is a sense of one’s own agency. It can be easy to become passive and a victim when you are given a mental health diagnosis, which can feel something of a life sentence, and as if it defines everything about you.
I have found that while thinking often makes me sad, doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy was essential to getting better. And there’s so much you can do to affect your happiness. The language you use for a start. So instead of saying: “I’m at the mercy of my low mood”, try saying: “I can choose how to respond to feeling blue.”
Part of this sense of empowerment has come from taking action – there’s an easily won satisfaction in being active and occupied. Now I use a number of ideas, including the power of food, to influence my mood as well as the healing power of bibliotherapy. You don’t have to wait for either a psychiatrist or a therapist to get cracking.
Simple daily acts such as paying proper attention when someone talks to you can transform how generous we are to others – and how happy we feel. Equally, there is much that we can do to increase our sense of social support: even light-touch socialising can boost our mood.
One idea is to formalise breaks at work in the way that all of Britain used to stop at 4pm for a cuppa. This is the case in Sweden, where many Swedes down tools twice a day for communal get-togethers known as fika – one possible reason why they rank number seven on the list.
Perhaps we can take one last lesson from our Nordic neighbours. The Finns have a word, sisu, which means stoic perseverance and grit, whatever comes your way. A touch of sisu is something we can all decide to adopt in the weeks ahead. Who knows – next year, against the odds, we might even find ourselves a bit higher up the happiness lists.