Is this Finnish town the world’s happiest?

It’s cold and dark in Kauniainen but its mayor is claiming the happy crown

Travellers wait at the train station in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times

Travellers wait at the train station in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times

 

Jan Mattlin was having what counts as a bad day in Kauniainen. He had driven to the town’s train station and found nowhere to park. Mildly piqued, he called the local newspaper to suggest a small article about the lack of parking spots.

To Mattlin’s surprise, the editor put the story on the front page. “We have very few problems here,” recalled Mattlin, a partner at a private equity firm. “Maybe they didn’t have any other news available.”

Such is the charmed life in Kauniainen (pronounced: COW-nee-AY-nen), a small and wealthy Finnish town that can lay claim to being the happiest place on the planet. Finland was named the world’s happiest country by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in April, based on polling results from 156 nations.

And a second survey found that Kauniainen’s 9,600 residents were the most satisfied in Finland, leading the local mayor, Christoffer Masar, to joke that theirs was the happiest town on earth.

Some Finns were surprised; a few even unhappy. 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.

“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 kilometres from Kauniainen. “We might mean life satisfaction, or being joyful every day. It’s a bit ambiguous.”

So can happiness really be measured? And if so, are Finns really that cheery?

After soccer practice, Antti Raunemaa, from left, Nicke Tevajarni and Johan Hilli have a drink at Moms, the only late-night bar in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: (Lena Mucha/The New York Times
After soccer practice, Antti Raunemaa, from left, Nicke Tevajarni and Johan Hilli have a drink at Moms, the only late-night bar in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: (Lena Mucha/The New York Times

To try to answer those questions, a trip to Kauniainen seemed mandatory. The reasons for the town’s happiness are not immediately obvious upon arrival. Kauniainen, which lies on the outskirts of Helsinki, the Finnish capital, is pretty, but not stunning: a collection of large detached houses, sprinkled throughout a thin fir forest, centred around an unremarkable town square.

At this time of year, the day doesn’t get light properly till after 9am. The light fades again by 3.30pm. Ask a resident if they feel happy, and you get a measured response, but hardly an ecstatic one.

The main reason is that people have something to do

“What is happiness?” Masar, the mayor, asked rhetorically, over lunch last month at the town’s only deli. At Moms, the town’s only late-night bar, a few football 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”.

The bartender suggested another stop to find more smiles. “Maybe the McDonald’s at Espoo?” said Jenny Lindholm, nodding toward the next town along. “There’s nowhere else, really.”

Happiness hunter

And yet, there was. Just not where a happiness-hunter might initially expect it. Kauniainen’s blandly named Adult Education Centre, a tall building on the edge of town, did not sound promising. But it was here, not the bar, where large numbers of residents were having fun that evening.

A choir rehearses at the Adult Education Centre in Kauniainen. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times
A choir rehearses at the Adult Education Centre in Kauniainen. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times

In the basement, they 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 practising yoga.

Subsidised by both the state and the city, the centre offers cheap evening classes to residents “in basically anything that people might be interested in,” said Roger Renman, the centre’s director.

About 15 per cent of the town’s population is enrolled here at any one time, some paying less than a euro per hour of tuition, depending on the course. Similar centres are found across Finland, but Kauniainen’s is particularly active, especially for a town of this size.

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 centre was just the leading edge in the town’s activity options for residents. For what Kauniainen lacks in parking places, it makes up for with state-funded services.

In this single small town, there are more than 100 sports and cultural clubs, all of them subsidised in some way by the local council: clubs for the Swedish-speaking minority, clubs for the Finnish majority, a ski slope, a children’s music school, a children’s art school, an athletics stadium, an 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.

Crime rates

When residents argued, two decades ago, about whether they should build an ice hockey rink or a handball court, the council solved the dispute by funding both. The only obviously absent institution is a police station – with minimal crime rates, there is no need for one.

A swimming class at the indoor pool in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times
A swimming class at the indoor pool in Kauniainen, Finland. Photograph: Lena Mucha/The New York Times

All this supplements a good and cheap universal healthcare system, free university education and affordable childcare. And a school system in which children are rarely tested, and teachers rarely inspected, but which, despite a recent dip, still ranks as one of the best in the world.

Strolling through her secondary school, Leena-Maija Niemi, the head teacher, pointed out the classrooms and playgrounds that the students themselves had helped design, something she said that contributed to their sense of belonging.

To pay for all this, taxes are high by American standards. Someone earning €40,000 might pay more than double the amount of tax in Finland as in 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,” said Finn Berg, a former head of the town council. “And if you put it that way, then this is a happy place, because we have a lot of possibilities here.”

Wealth helps, too. Though the proportion of low-earners in Kauniainen is about the same as in the rest of Finland, the percentage of high-earners is roughly double the national average, said the mayor. Since the town’s municipal tax rates are fractionally lower than elsewhere in the country, Kauniainen has become an attractive destination for those with the means to move here.

But this has advantages for all residents. Individually, the rich pay less tax. But collectively they create a larger tax yield, enabling the town council to spend about four times as much on cultural activities, per capita, than the average Finnish district, three times as much on sports, and 50 per cent more on childcare.

All this breeds some basic satisfaction, said an understated Berg, the former council chairman. “I’ve been thinking about what happiness is, and happiness is about being contented with your life, and about not being miserable,” Berg said. “And I’m not miserable.” – New York Times

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