The Happiest Place on Earth

Song of Happiness

Whoever has happiness, hide it,
whoever has treasure, cover it,
and be happy for your luck,

and rich from your joy alone.

Happiness cannot bear to be seen.
Whoever has happiness, walk into the forest
and just live quietly, quietly

and quietly enjoy your happiness.

~ Eino Leino (translated by Roger Renman)



‘Finland was named the world’s happiest country by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in April 2018, 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.’   ~ Patrick Kingsley, The NewYork Times,  












Boys Football Team, GrlFK  Football Club
Boys at the DigiLab 
Heidi Backman, Head of Education 
Taru, Education Technology Specialist
Christoffer Masar, Mayor of Kauniainen 
Volunteer Firemen, Grankula Fire Brigade
Jan Sten, Grankulla Football Club 
Roger Renman, Rector,The Adult Education Centre, Kauniainen
415A9885-1 (1)
Hannamaija Heiska, Kauniainen School of Art (with a book celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Art School)
Daniel Kahneman contends that happiness and satisfaction are distinct. Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire. …  memory is enduring, feelings pass.’                                                                   ~ Quartz online journal
Bernt & Marie-Louise Paqvalen
 Grankula Music Institute
Lars-Michaël, ‘Micke’, founder of Trahus, specialising in renovating traditional wooden houses in Finland
Risto Ilmoniemi, Professor of Applied Physics, Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, Aalto University, Espoo
Frank Martela, Ph.D. in Applied Philosophy and Organisational Research, Aalto University, Finland
Project Statement
According to the World Happiness Report, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network ranks the four Nordic countries as the top five happiest nations, with Finland, which headed the table last year, coming out top. The question posed by the report is: ‘It’s easy to see how civil war and insurgencies can bring misery to people, but what really makes a happy nation?’ The report points out that it’s not just about money, even though the top ten countries are all affluent. The survey uses a three-year rolling average of survey responses around six key factors: GDP per capita; social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and corruption levels. Finland scores well on all factors but particularly strongly on generosity. Almost half of Finns donate regularly to charity and almost a third said they had given up time to volunteer for a charity in the previous month. It is the country’s social safety net combined with personal freedom and a good work-life balance that gives it the edge.

With this in mind I arranged to visit the city of Kauniainen to meet those that live here, to talk to them about their experience of living in Kauniainen and what they think about being ranked so high in terms of global happiness. Kauniainen (in Swedish Grankula, in English Fir Hill) is a small city of about nine & a thousand inhabitants, that lies within the Helsinki Metropolitan area. It is surrounded by the City of Espoo, Greater Helsinki. Kauniainen has had a reputation of being filled with authors, artists and large wooden villas set in lush woodland. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century this area was mostly woodland and shrub, crossed by paths & tracks. The early pioneers of the town built summer villas by the Galltrask lake and the train station opened in 1908. The Grankulla Company, founded in 1906, brought up land and re-sold it stimulating growth. Authors & artists were drawn to the area, creating a cosmopolitan culture. The Kauniainen School of Art was founded in 1978 and is the oldest school of art in Finland. Kauniainen was founded by people with vision: to live near to nature and make decisions together.

My photographic method was to meet as varied a cross section of the community as possible, to form a portrait of the city. This included visiting key communal areas, such as the Adult Education Centre and sports clubs, and meeting a variety of inhabitants, from the Lord Mayor to the local volunteer fire brigade, thus building up a comprehensive picture of the small city and it’s nine and a half thousand inhabitants but also posing the question of how do we define happiness.


Notes from Conversations:

Taru is tasked with updating not just the IT system and learning environments within schools but much more: at the GraniDigiLab, a drop in centre accessible to anyone in Kauniainen, they are experimenting with 3D printers, AI technology, robotics, intelligent textiles, augmented reality and virtual reality. Teenagers have programmed AI interfaces and children asked to design environments  that best extoll health and well-being. Heidi explains to me that the education system in Finland is based on trust; the three boys I meet all have their own keys and can access the centre any time day or night.  She tells me that the schools have no standardised tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school, yet Finland has one of the highest education standards. There are no universities in Kauniainen so the young people usually travel to the neighbouring cities of Helsinki and Espoo; I ask the three boys whether, when they go to university, they’ll then leave Kauniainen, but they say probably not: “we’ll live here and commute to Helsinki or Espoo.” Heidi talks about increasing compassion, within education but more generally: this is essential to healthy living and healthy communities. The DigiLab is part of the local school; the art school, comprising of three rooms, is above the DigiLab, which is about ten minutes walk from the music academy. It is a very small city, about 8 square miles, but packed with activities. Health and education, community and culture, are all closely interlinked.
Roger informs me that they have yoga and gymnastics, English classes, ceramics, a tapestry weaving room, glass making, arts & crafts, in fact anything that anyone wants to set up. Roger welcomes me to ‘Petra, the Adult Education Centre’, taking me on a tour, starting with a large church-like room.’Petra’, he tells me, as well as being a real city, a place of worship in the mountains of Jordan, comes from a quote in the Bible and means rock: Isaiah 2 -  ’Enter into the rock and hide thee in the dust’. Petra also derives from the Greek word ‘petros’ meaning stone, rock. The building has a Christian background though the adult education centre is non-religious. I ask him about the characterisation of Kauniainen as the ‘happiest town in Finland’ and he tells me that because of the strong Protestant strain in Finland they are supposed to find happiness in work: the good work ethic. Fins are more reticent to claim they are happy personally. He later sends me a poem by Eino Leino that perfectly encapsulates this sense of reserved happiness. 
Satu Roberg, Head of Grankulla Musikinstitut, the Music Institute, tells me that Kauniainen is a safe place. The young violinist agrees: “You don’t feel scared, even walking home at night.” She adds that Kauniainen has everything you need and it’s very easy to get to Helsinki. She has lived here all her life. Her parents were also born and bred here. She’ll probably stay: “I can’t see any reason to leave.” The pianist tells me that the city has a lot of open space and is very easy to get around. “Everyone knows everyone in Kauniainen.” Satu tells me that you have multi-generational families and that the elderly are still very active and influential. “There is both an entrepreneurial spirit here and a love of tradition.” Annika at the thrift store tells me that this was the first second-hand clothes store in Finland: Lafkan Secondhand was set up 40 years ago at a time when people inn Finland were not used to buying used clothing. Now it has become very popular as people have become more environmentally friendly.
Lars-Michaël (Micke) is a serial entrepreneur; he has numerous businesses, including four major software companies and Kiosked, an intelligent advertising platform, but most interesting to me is his business specialising in renovating wooden houses in Finland. He has eight renovation projects around Grankula Lake and many more across the country. His company (one of many) is called Trähus, which is Swedish for Tree House. The house he lives in is owned by his uncle Bernt; it is partitioned: his family live in one half whilst his uncle and aunt live the other side. The house was built by his great-grandparents and the family has lived here since 1909. The villa was designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, known for his work with art nouveau buildings in the early years of the 20th century. Micke tells me that the land around the villa is separated into plots; their joint villa has two plots.The City Council collects tax on the plots: 1000 euros per month. This is the cost of holding onto the land. It is, he tells me, an expensive place to buy and an expensive place to live, which means it retains its exclusivity. A lot of owners therefore sell their plots to the City; the council has first claim on them. The council then develops the plots for new properties, which are often out of keeping with the original villas. Micke is passionate about preserving the traditional wooden buildings: “some were built early 1900 and, with careful renovation, are still in perfectly good condition. They are better at withstanding the extreme weather and, if looked after, last much longer than the new builds.” I ask him what he thinks are the qualities that make Kauniainen a special place to live in and he acknowledges it affluence but stresses that all amenities are here and within walking distance, plus, it is fifty per cent Swedish! 
Frank was the former visiting scholar at the Human Motivation Research Group, University of Rochester, working together with professor Richard Ryan, researching ‘what makes human beings intrinsically motivated to help other people’. Frank was also involved with the interdisciplinary research project ‘CoPassion – The Revolutionary Power of Compassion’, University of Helsinki, 2015 – 2017. Frank tells me that he prefers prefer to use more specific terms than just happiness, which different people understand differently. Instead, he refers to ’life satisfaction’, ’positive feelings’, and ’meaning in life’ that all refer to types of happiness, but are all different. His next book, his fourth, will be titled ‘The meaning of life: What makes life worth living.’   


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