KAUNIAINEN, Finland – This town has declared itself the happiest place on Earth. Some of the people are not happy about that.
“My trouble with the word ‘happiness’ is that we never know what we’re talking about when we talk about happiness,” said Prof. Frank Martela, who researches well-being at the University of Helsinki and grew up a few miles from Kauniainen (pronounced COW-nee-AY-nen). “We might mean life satisfaction, or being joyful every day. It’s a bit ambiguous.”
In the global consciousness, the stereotypical Finn is melancholic, introverted and more prone to suicide than most other nationalities. Finns themselves buy into parts of the stereotype: If a stranger smiles at you in the street, goes a Finnish proverb, they’re either drunk, foreign or crazy.
Ask the residents if they are happy, and the answer is hardly an ecstatic one. Replied Finn Berg, a former head of the town council, “I’m not miserable.”
So how did this town end up claiming the designation of the world’s happy place?
It was a two-step process. First, Finland was named the world’s happiest country by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, based on polling results from 156 nations. Bolstered by the news, the Finnish government did a second survey that found that Kauniainen’s 9,600 residents were the most satisfied in the country, leading the mayor, Christoffer Masar, to declare it the happiest town on Earth.
The reasons for the town’s happiness are not immediately obvious upon arrival, especially this time of the year, when it doesn’t get light until after 9 a.m. and starts getting dark again at 3:30 p.m.
Kauniainen, a wealthy bedroom community on the outskirts of Helsinki, is pretty, but not stunning: a collection of large detached houses, sprinkled throughout a thin fir forest, centered around an unremarkable town square. The town has one deli and one late-night bar.
During a recent visit to Moms, the aforementioned bar, a few soccer players were in a wry but subdued mood, commiserating after a loss earlier that evening.
“When we lose,” deadpanned Antti Raunemaa, a construction executive, “We’re only happy after the second beer.”
Asked where a visitor could find more smiles, he was directed to the McDonald’s in a neighboring town. “There’s nowhere else, really,” said the bartender, Jenny Lindholm.
And yet: There was. Just not where a happiness-hunter might initially expect it.
Kauniainen’s blandly named Adult Education Center, a tall building on the edge of town, did not sound promising. But it was there where large numbers of residents were having fun that evening.
In the basement, people were weaving carpets on vast looms and making pottery. On the ground floor, a choir was singing. On the floors above, others were painting replicas of Orthodox Christian icons or practicing yoga.
Subsidized by both the state and the city, the center offers cheap evening classes to residents “in basically anything that people might be interested in,” said Roger Renman, the center’s director.
It’s this kind of service that makes the town cheerier than most, reckoned Seija Soini, a retired businesswoman taking part in a painting class.
“The main reason is that people have something to do — things like this!” Soini said, as she painted a portrait of her niece. “It’s like psychotherapy.”
And the education center was just the leading edge in the town’s activity options for residents. There are more than 100 sports and cultural clubs, all of them subsidized in some way by the local council: clubs for the Swedish-speaking minority, clubs for the Finnish majority, a ski slope, children’s music school, children’s art school, athletics stadium, ice rink — and even a purpose-built set of outdoor stairs, known as a “kuntoportaat,” which allow people to keep fit by walking up and down.
The only obviously absent institution is a police station: With minimal crime rates, there is no need.
All this supplements a good and cheap universal health care system, public schools that rank among the best in the world, free university education and affordable child care.
To pay for all this, taxes are high by American standards — twice those of some American states. But residents said they can feel the dividend: a society with low inequality, high opportunity and a strong sense of solidarity.
“For me, happiness is about being contented with your life and the possibilities you have in life,” Berg said. “And if you put it that way, then this is a happy place, because we have a lot of possibilities here.”