Whether it's for overall happiness or the best place to live, Finland often earns high marks. But such accolades aren't always greeted with cheers and high-fives like they are in other places. The Finnish response is more muted, more pragmatic, more focused on the big picture.

To understand why, you have to dig a little deeper into the culture. When Finland was named the happiest country in the world, "Finns reacted the same way as we have reacted to other top rankings in various international comparisons: we criticized the methodology of the study, questioned its conclusions and pointed to the shortcomings of Finnish society," Finnish photographer and researcher Frank Martela explains to Scientific American.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened, either. Martela cites an op-ed written by the CEO Finnish Chamber of Commerce in 2014 after the country was named the most economically competitive country in the European Union by the World Economic Forum. While Risto Penttilä's op-ed is partially a political piece about certain policy failures, it speaks to an overall tendency among Finns to downplay successes by pointing out their failures.

'Exaggerated' happiness

Visitors check out the Kuopio Market Square in Kuopio, Finland Strong social institutions contributed to Finland's top placement in the the happiest country rankings. (Photo: RnDmS/Shutterstock)

Martela, who was born in Helsinki, explains that "the happiness of Finns has been greatly exaggerated" due to the SDSN's methodology. For instance, when happiness is measured based on things like freedom, life expectancy and the strength of social institutions, in addition to self-reported happiness on a 0 to 10 scale — which the SDSN does — then results are going to skew a little bit as Nordic countries perform well on the more macro level categories. (For the record, Finns averaged a score of about 7.6 on that happiness scale.)

But this view is a little too weighted toward this particular concept of happiness, Martela argues. A 2014 survey from Gallup had Finland near the middle when it came to its people reporting a lot of positive emotions. Countries in Central and South America reported feeling more positive emotions than other places around the globe. Martela says this isn't too surprising since Finns aren't fans of displaying their emotions.

A report from The New Economics Foundation's National Accounts of Well-being backed up this assessment. That 2011 survey found that Finns ranked around average in "positive feelings" category, but very high in the "absence of negative feelings" category.

Martela also cites a World Health Organization 2004 study that looked at the per capita prevalence of unipolar depression disorders. Coming in at No. 2 was Finland, ostensibly the happiest country in the world. Martela is careful to explain that rankings for depression on an intentional level is problematic and that other research has Finland closer to the middle than the top. Still, the implication is that Finland is the happiest place on the planet but also doesn't have the support systems in place to help those with depression.

An aversion to happiness may make Finns happier

Children skate on an ice rink in Helsinki Finns don't brag too much about their good lives, which may make them happier. (Photo: Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock)

That "absence of negative feelings" in the New Economics Foundation's survey may ultimately be the key to understanding why the Finns seem to perform as well as they do, and why they downplay possible successes.

Martela posits that Finns, simply by not overstating or even showing their happiness, they are making themselves happier overall.

"The Finnish tendency to downplay one's own happiness and the norm against too much public display of joy might actually make Finns happier," Martela writes. "This is because social comparison seems to play a significant role in people's life satisfaction. If everybody else is doing better than you, it is hard to be satisfied with your life conditions, no matter how good they objectively are."

Martela's assertion isn't entirely off-base. As he explains, social media posts that present an idealized version of people's lives may make us feel bad about our own lives, even if they are objectively good.

So are Finns really the happiest people in the world? Maybe, maybe not. It just depends on how you want to define happiness and how you're willing to show it.

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