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What with the dizzying heights we had reached on the roller-coaster ride of Covid-19 — a two-year ride that upended, where it did not cost, millions of lives — followed by the rattle of war drums pounding across Europe in recent weeks, heralding a conflict with global implications, our world has not been a happy place of late.

Yet, in the midst of all this doom and gloom, there’s one country in that same world whose people have learnt, seemingly with impressive ease, how to look on the bright side of life and imbue it with emotional well-being, that fulfilling relationship between self and society.

Last Friday the United Nations, in its annual The World Happiness Report, which the international body began releasing in 2012, named Finland as the happiest country in the world — for the fifth year in a row.

Wait, Finland? Finland, whose people we’ve imagined, when we took the time to imagine them, to be taciturn, melancholic and untalkative, and who would brush you off when you kissed them, Arab — fashion, on both cheeks?

No, not that Finland of our bigoted imagination, but the real, down-to-earth, laid-back Nordic country in Northern Europe, with a population of 5.5 million, often called “Land of the Lakes” — and called so not without reason, for it has (hold on to your hat) 187, 888 lakes, which translates into one lake for every 26 Finns, lakes on whose shores, on a typical summer day, travel writers tell us, you are likely to encounter a dozen or so bathers lazing on the beach or diving into the water off the pier of one of them.

And forests? Forget about it. Finland invented them. Two thirds of the country’s land surface area is made up of forests — so many that Leslie Li, a travel writer for the New York Times, once blithely wrote: “Finland must be the only country in the world where you can’t see the trees for the forest, let alone the lakes through the trees”.

Widespread mutual trust

Finns, in short, live in a country that appears to have the attributes of a lotus land, reportedly with well-functioning public services, widespread mutual trust between ordinary citizen and public servant for the social contract and low levels of crime, political polarisation and class disparities.

If it was not surprising then that, among the 146 nations it surveyed, the United Nations ranked this little, enchanting nation as the being the happiest in the world (followed by Denmark and Switzerland) it was not surprising either the country that made it to the bottom of the list as the most dispirited was Afghanistan (followed by Lebanon and Venezuela).

One finds that not surprising because surely emotional well-being is directly correlated to the relationship an individual forms between self-and society. And once a puncture in that dialectic occurs, existential malaise sets in. Also a stark reminder of the spiritual damage that military conflict and economic deprivation does to the human psyche.

What was surprising however, was that the survey found Americans to be happier this year than they were in the last, relegating them in the happiness index to 16th place (one point ahead of the Brits and six behind the French). Heavens what were these researchers who composed the report talking about?

Sad state of social discontent

A great many depressed Americans would’ve ranked their own country in 4th place, after Afghanistan, Lebanon and Venezuela, given its sad, sad state of social discontent it has endured in recent years.

I tell you, the last fellow-American I ran into who was happy, looked happy and acted happy was an expat friend who was on a short visit here and could hardly wait to fly back to Canada where he had settled soon after Donald Trump had taken office.

But, seriously, folks, how do we, how can we, go about defining or quantifying happiness, let alone between how happiness should be distinguished from its sister sentiments, like emotional well-being, contentment and satisfaction?

Philosophers, along with a motley crew of psychoanalysts, anthropologists and cultural historians, have tried and failed to do so, all the way from Plato in Ancient Greece to Augustine of Hippo in Imperial Rome, and from Avicenna (that is, ibn Sena, celebrated as one of the most prominent thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age) in the Middle Ages to Viktor Frankl (the Austrian psychiatrist whose philosophy revolved around the imperative of “the will-to-meaning” in our quotidian lives, as opposed to “the will-to-power”) in modern times.

Henry David Thoreau, the American naturalist, poet and essayist, who wrote in the middle of the 19th century, likened happiness to a butterfly which, the more you chased it, the more it eluded you, whereas if “you turned your attention to other things, it would sit softly on your shoulder”.

Sorry, Henry, that’s all well and goo if you’re one of those 26 Finns who have their own private lake on whose shore they loaf around when they feel stressed out — not when you’re member of a polarised society in the early 21st century with the weight of the world on its back.

In this world today, being the unhappy place that it is, it’s not easy to get happiness, well-being, contentment or even satisfaction. Darn, if you don’t believe me, ask Mick Jagger.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile