Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer and violinist, with his family. Picture Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images

The wealth of having enough

In an age of consumption, contentment is a crime

Artillery Row

“My more-having would be a sauce to make me hungry more.”

— Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III

According to an article which recently attempted to deconstruct the title of Finland as the happiest country in the world, a “grim” reality is in fact lurking behind why Finns may have assessed themselves as such for four years running.

The UN happiness index’s methodology — which is not, of course, based on seasonal affectivity given that Finland is shrouded in Arctic darkness for six months of every year — considers a self-ranking survey of nationally representative population samples. Finns’ contentment provides the ammunition for the astonishing conclusion of the article which is that Nordics are, conveniently, socialised to be satisfied with just small homes and modest incomes, with scant ambition for more.

The superiority of gratitude to the insatiable pursuit of an ill-defined happiness.

Regardless of the fact that Finland and its Nordic neighbours situate fairly highly on every measure of GDP per capita or average household income, the Americanophilic author’s rugged conclusion is but increasingly a product of our times, one that is worth addressing.

Ever since the marriage between the relentless profiteering and consumption of the industrial revolution and its similarly revolutionary forerunner, the Jacobin prioritisation of the economy above religion, North American and West European cultures have been tempted to associate the “pursuit of happiness” (as enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence) too closely with relative material circumstance, power, status, fame, and the ambitions thereof. As the recently departed Belgian-American philosopher Dr Alice von Hildebrand put it, the absolute has been relativised and the relative absolutised.

While Finland is by no means a utopia, one could propose a few lessons to take from its self-assessed happiness. These include the importance of human proximity to nature, the benefits of small homogenous populations or, applied to larger countries or empires, small homogenous federal states, and, by no means least, the superiority of gratitude to the insatiable pursuit of an ill-defined happiness.

Covered in 75% forest and bearing 188,000 lakes, Finland is not short of eudaimonic surroundings. We have known for millennia that nature is integral to mental and spiritual health. Although the vast majority of its 5.5 million population lives in or nearby cities, the cities themselves all boast easy access to sea, lake, forest and shore. Relevantly, the country is also a prime example of everyman’s right: all are free to roam any land so long as they cause no damage, meaning that the commons are truly are held in common.

Finns have enjoyed what they are given

This leads us to the second factor in its contentment. With a small population and historical homogeneity, a common culture has long been enjoyed. Finns are said to have arrived from the east and south of the planet just after the last glacial period and have since maintained a coherent national narrative, language and identity throughout periods of both autonomy and submission to imperial neighbours. 

Shared institutions have dispersed resource wealth and new money throughout the years so, although there is rarely idol-inducing success or hysteria-inducing celebration, neither is there much trauma-inducing polarisation, inequality, or revolutionary change. (The country famously obtained its independence from Russia less than a month after the October Revolution.) 

Finally and, as introduced, apparently controversially, Finland possesses a culture which does not encourage ambition for the accumulation of “ever-more”. This could be assumed not just by the behaviour of an average Finn but also more widely by the historical absence of any of its own imperial pursuits. 

Rather than fantasising about self-advancement and world dominion, Finns have enjoyed what they are given: moderately embracing and defending land and life as they are bestowed. Low expectations and even “unexceptionalism”, as some have termed it, perhaps, but its fruits are apparent.

In a world which now brims with desperate lows and ecstatic highs, and given the statistical impossibility of every person and experience being “exceptional”, perhaps it is this elevation of a modest, steady and ordinary life that countries lower on the index miss — a healthy psyche requires no psychedelic.

By its very etymology, we know happiness is something that “happens” as a consequence of something else. For people who are nourished by good things (faith, nature, family, gratitude) no deliberate sources of highs are needed to fill voids within. 

The poor man is not the one who has nothing but the one who has many desires

As Aristotelian ethics explain and the Church has since built upon, all men rightly desire the happy state despite it not being something that can be pursued directly. Most dangerously, when such a pursuit is encouraged and ill-defined, we are led to pursue vain replacements which actually draw us further and further away from attaining it. 

If our dominant culture today belittles “living in small apartments, earning modest incomes with limited purchasing power” and instead elevates the amassing of “ever-more”, we are implicitly and incorrectly informed that our value is judged and measured by what we have amassed. 

Yet, as the fourth century saint and bishop John Chrysostom eloquently reminds us, the rich man is not the one who has collected much but the one who needs little, while the poor man is not the one who has nothing but the one who has many desires.  Chrysostom writes, “if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired every one’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.”

By teaching our children to cultivate an ambition that sows towards atomic and insatiable amassing and dominion, we let them reap the lonely misery of ingratitude and the pride, greed, envy and lust that follow. 

Gratitude and sustainably minimal consumption are mutually reinforcing and not only do they serve our own good but also that of others. However miserably moderation and modesty are sold, often because in reality doing good involves some sacrifice, they are paradoxically the only thing that truly satisfies.

By the accident of Finnish temperaments and the criticisms thereof, we can be taught a profound lesson. That what the Anglosphere could really gain is not “ever-more”, but a little recollection and gratitude. Let’s be counted as the richest of all, even if we have acquired nothing.

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