Kindness is good for you: How Finland can inspire changes in the UK following the COVID-19 outbreak

For the third year running, Finland has been crowned as the ‘happiest country’ by the World Happiness Report 2020. The report was based on personal evaluations, in which citizens of one-hundred and fifty-six countries rated their happiness by assessing how satisfied they were with their own lives. The assessment measures this satisfaction using six facets, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. With the top three happiest countries in the world being Nordic states and the UK being in thirteenth place, perhaps it is time to reflect on what we can learn from these countries.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK has displayed a strong sense of social cohesion. It is now the case that it’s not us against them, it’s all of us against this virus. It’s a moment when we have to say: “we, as a world, are fighting this”. A sense of unity has been rediscovered. People have been volunteering, using their skills to create protective gear for NHS staff, while others have been saving lives on the frontline. People are thinking more about the effect of their actions on other beings; it appears that the level of mindfulness has increased as individuals take personal responsibility to contribute to flattening the curve. By recognising that small, personal losses such as not seeing our friends and family will benefit those with pre-existing medical conditions and prevent spread, we are taking an active role of control of a chaotic and frightening situation. This, in turn, leads to individual feelings of satisfaction as everybody will feel that they have contributed to a heroic and selfless act.

Workers who were previously labelled by Home Secretary Priti Patel as ‘low-skilled’, are the driving forces in allowing us to successfully and efficiently combat COVID-19. This includes the non-medical workers who keep the cogs of the nation turning throughout this strange time. These people should continue to be praised and provided with the necessary respect, to reinforce that their efforts are appreciated, whether we are in crisis or not. Even simply using your manners with cashiers during your weekly shop, for example, can go a long way.

It has been scientifically proven that small acts of kindness have a ripple effect that can extend to more than one-hundred people as Dr Rangan Chatterjee discusses in his podcast (ep.104, ‘Live Better, Feel More’). This highlights that ‘happiness is contagious’ and, therefore, can create a massive impact on society. It is also interesting to consider that happier people do generally carry out more kind acts. Vanessa King, a positive psychology expert, shares that ‘if people do six extra acts of kindness on one day, that increased happiness and the effects of those acts on the person has been shown to last for six weeks.’ Not only is being kind good for others, but it has personal benefits too. It has positive influences on mental health, the immune system and slows ageing.

According to the World Happiness Report, Finland is exceptional at community cohesion: ‘Time and again we see the reasons for wellbeing include good social support networks, social trust, honest governments, safe environments and healthy lives.’ Citizens are generally happier when they feel a sense of belonging, but also trust within their communities. A mutually reinforcing attitude has been proven to be a source of happiness which is a direct result of actively being kind and acknowledging other’s needs. We should continue to practice, as well as increase pro-social behaviours such as volunteering, checking in on neighbours and focussing on ‘the common good’.

Of course, the competence of the country’s government makes a large difference to the well-being of its citizens. It is not surprising that government funding would make a great impact on the general life satisfaction of the population. Finland’s results have demonstrated that government competency is a prominent factor in achieving happiness amongst citizens. This means that having faith in our government to stick to their promises and be a safety net when things go wrong, then we will experience improvements in general mental well-being. Finland’s citizens pay higher taxes (as well as earning higher wages) but this ensures that everybody is protected in cases of vulnerability.  

We must recognise that everybody has a personal obligation in society; being self-aware, demonstrating acts of kindness and mindfulness will contribute to a harmonious society. Ultimately, happiness will be best achieved through social and economic policies that create a safety net for people that allows them to go about life with ease.

Zoé Green