The Flip Side of Happiness
The Two Faces of Finland
One of the world’s happiest countries also has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Behind Finland's contented national visage, what remains unknown to us?
The Two Faces of FinlandBy Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 385 )
In early November, an 18-year-old Finnish high school student took a handgun to his school and went on a shooting rampage, ultimately killing eight people, in Finland 's first-ever mass shooting on a school campus. The crime not only shocked all of Finland , but also caused disbelief throughout the world. Finnish high school students consistently rate among the world's most outstanding ?V how could one of them perpetrate such a violent act?
As Europeans see it, half of Finns are drunks. Jokes poking fun at Finns invariably revolve around booze. Finns don't deny this. Finns drink, they'll tell you, not to celebrate or commemorate or depressurize ?V they drink simply to get drunk. One of the primary jobs of the Finnish policeman is hauling passed-out drunks off the commuter trains.
Finland 's Number-one Killer
The Finnish government has previously tried to make the cost of drunkenness heavier through government monopoly on sales and a hefty 87 percent tax on spirits, the world's highest. In response to those policies, Finns began crossing the border into neighboring Russia or Estonia on drinking excursions. An upstanding member of the European Union, Finland three years ago slashed its tax on spirits by 44 percent in keeping with EU rules, and the nation's struggle with alcoholism only worsened.
According to statistics from Finland 's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, in 2006 alcohol for the first time surpassed heart disease as Finland 's number-one killer of adult men. Alcohol was also the cause in 10.5 percent of deaths among adult females, second only to breast cancer. Finland spends US$1.1 billion annually in treating alcohol-related conditions.
Finland is full of striking contrasts.
In a European quality-of-life survey, Finns ranked second in satisfaction with quality of life. When England 's University of Leicester released its 'map' of the world's happiest nations, Finland ranked sixth. Paradoxically, Finland also has one of the world's highest rates of suicide, with 30 per 100,000 among adults 35-44 years of age, twice the European Union average.
Some say it's a manifestation of winter melancholy among northern Europeans, while others blame the 7.7 percent unemployment rate. But compared with France and Germany , where unemployment rates approach 10 percent, Finland 's unemployment problem seems surmountable. Nonetheless, Finns harbor the deepest fears of unemployment.
According to another EU survey, 13 percent of Finns believe they will be out of work within six months ?V a proportion far higher than numerous other countries that places Finns among Europe 's leading pessimists.
Finnish cinema is replete with these gray allegories.
A Gray-hued Finland
Finland's best-known film director Aki Kaurismaki, now 50 years old, received the Finnish 'national education' ?V a major in communications engineering ?V and held all manner of jobs, from dishwasher to postman, before the three films comprising his Finnish Trilogy ( Shadows in Paradise , Ariel and The Match Factory Girl ) finally came to international acclaim. The cool, dark expressionism of the Finnish Trilogy reflects the duality of Finland , the coexistence of happiness and depression, of hope and despair.
Director Aku Louhimies's Paha maa ( Frozen Land ), Finland 's number-one box office film last year, also depicts the depression, unemployment, alcoholism and despair of Finland .
In an interview with the Financial Times , Louhimies acknowledged the film was a tale of today's Finland , one full of comedy and tragedy. During the film's Oslo premiere, Finland 's ambassador to Norway told Louhimies it was exactly the film he had not wanted foreign audiences to see, despite it being Finland 's biggest international award-winning film of recent years.
'The conundrum of 21st century Finland,' wrote Financial Times Stockholm correspondent David Ibison, is 'here is a successful, welfare-based, competitive economy desperate to show itself as a modern European nation that is home to hip, young Nokia-clutching technological innovators, but which must also accept the reality that lies behind the stories in Frozen Land : mid- life unemployment breeding hopelessness, addiction, despair and deterioration. These issues are certainly not unique for Europe, but Finland is a harsh country where such contrasts come starker than most.'
Finns have always been sensitive to others' perceptions of them. There was heated debate officially, within academia and on the Internet after publication of the Financial Times Finland report. Aside from exhortations for self-improvement were calls for greater effort to improve foreign perceptions of Finland , while others urged the media to come back to Finland when the weather was better. ' Finland looks much happier then.'
The gloomy aspect of the Finnish is absolutely related to the weather. As Linux founder Linus Torvalds explained in his autobiography Just for Fun, anyone who has spent a winter in Finland can understand Finns' fondness for the bottle.
One-third of Finland 's territory lies above the Arctic Circle and half of the world's population living above the 60th parallel are Finnish. For half the year the most daylight you'll see is a couple of hours per day.
At 10 a .m. it's still dark, and by 2 p.m. it's already dark again. It can be quite a pretty depressing feeling, observes economist Jaakko Kiander. During the winter months, Kiander says he is more easily fatigued and less motivated, an overall feeling of having been extinguished.
During the course of hundreds of years the Finns have learned to live in harmony with their interminable, inhospitable winter. With only two hours of daylight during Finland 's endless winter, Finns have more time indoors for reading or contemplation, which can also be helpful in fomenting innovation, contends Juha Yl?-J'ski, director of the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries, who works closely with the business community.
Many of Finland 's greatest innovations, from Torvald's program to Nokia technology, may well be the products of its winter, says Yl?-J'ski.
The flip side of dark is light. Come the White Nights of summer, and it's a different scene entirely.
When he starts talking about the weather, the ordinarily reserved Yl?-J'ski finally cracks a smile. A golf lover, he often gives the following pitch for Finland when meeting American businesspeople: 'Can you imagine that you can start to play golf at ten in the evening and finish golf at two in the morning? During this game, you will first see the sun set, and then you will see the sun rise. It never becomes dark ?V you can play all the night.'
What other land offers an opportunity like that?
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy