For six years in a row Finland has been named the happiest country in the world, but a deep dive into how the country won this title is more complex than just seeing smiling faces all around. In fact, the title is mostly about contentment, rather than what we normally think of as happiness. It is about feeling satisfied with just enough to live a good and secure life. The people of Finland live simply for the most part with programs that provide them with education, medical care, transportation and even strong support for the arts and entrepreneurial efforts. While geopolitical issues may cause them to have concern about the war in Ukraine, their membership in NATO and their often tenuous relationship with Russia they mostly persevere as one citizen notes with”grim determination even in the face of hardship.”
I found myself thinking of my mother when I read about the people of Finland. If ever there was a happy person, it was my mother. The irony is that she also suffered from bipolar disorder which often presented itself as depression. In truth sadness was only an illness that my mother had. Her true personality was always optimistic and joyful. She was perhaps the most content and grateful person I have ever known. Instead of grieving over her difficult and often tragic life, she found ways to celebrate the roof over her head, the food in her pantry, and the sun shining outside her window as though she was the richest person on earth. When really hard times came her resolve to remain happy was evidenced in her own grim determination not to be overcome by the trials that she had to endure.
I am more of a worrier by nature. I was angry that my mother had to struggle so much. I often became enraged that someone as good hearted as she was had to had to face an almost continuous onslaught of difficulties through no fault of her own. Mama never saw it my way. She found the blessings in every single day. If she had a few extra pennies for some cookies she thought herself undeniably fortunate. She praised God for the happiness and love He had given her rather than asking him for favors. She was the most saintlike and content person I ever knew. In fact, she was always the first person in the room to share what little she had rather than storing up a fortune while someone near her was suffering from want.
On the same day that I read about the people of Finland I saw that Boston ranks as the most helpful city in the United States. The title comes from a willingness of people to informally help their neighbors, donate to causes, join organizations whose goal is to assist others in some way. Once again I harked back to my mom. Perhaps her happiness came from her altruistic nature. Every one of her days seemed to be dedicated to helping or cheering up someone who was suffering in some way. She was always quick to send money to wounded veterans or Native American charities or St. Jude’s Hospital. It was never much, but in proportion to what she actually had it was a most generous donation. She could not pass a homeless person without digging into her purse. She had compassion for everyone without judgement. Her favorite saying was, “but for the grace of God there go I.”
Mama loved to tell stories of her own mother’s selfless acts. She noted that there were many times when my grandmother would prepare a fish for the family of ten people and quietly the head while her children feasted on the best parts. At other times when there was meat, Mama remembered her mother sucking on the bone while the rest of the family enjoyed a bit of protein. I suppose I believed my mother’s stories of my grandmother because my Grandma’s needs appeared to be so simple and yet she shared whatever she had be it a cup of sugary coffee or a slice of bread with anyone who came to her humble home.
Somehow I got the message that happiness is never about things or trips or tangible items and yet I have often been lulled into our hypnotic national obsession with success and money. We are so often more in awe of the person who has stored away treasures and possessions and power than humble folk like my mother or my grandmother. We unconsciously send the message to our children that the measure of a person lies in collecting things and honors rather than in being content with just enough. Perhaps it’s time we learn from people like the Finns who are simply satisfied and willing to live without all of the frills that sometimes seem to make us less happy than we might otherwise be.
There is the momentary happiness of buying a fancy car, but eventually that automobile wears out. We can fill our closets with expensive clothes but they are soon out of style. When our days on this earth are done I suppose everyone would like to believe that he or she will be remembered as someone who generously spread joy and compassion. I can’t think of a single time that I have heard a eulogy about a person’s money and power or even the size of his/her home. The Finns have it right and so do the people of Boston. Life is about finding joy in each moment and each person we encounter. It should be about sharing our blessing as best we can. Happiness is all about being content and helpful even in the face of hardship.