Dinner outside. Photo: Jussi Hellsten, Helsinki Marketing

The world’s happiest city Helsinki creates good life

On the International Day of Happiness 20 March 2020, the United Nations initiative Sustainable Development Solutions Network published their annual report on the state of global happiness. Finland topped the global ranking as the world’s happiest country for the third year running.

In addition to the country rankings, the World Happiness Report 2020 ranked cities around the world for the first time. Helsinki claimed the top spot as the world’s happiest city.

Helsinki’s birthday, celebrated on Helsinki Day today, is a good moment to reflect on reasons for happiness in Helsinki.

A functional city creates happiness

The publication of the World Happiness Report on 20 March was overshadowed by the grave global challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The Finnish Government had announced a national state of emergency only days before the publication.

However, the challenge has not blurred Helsinki’s vision to be the most functional city in the world, as stated in the City Strategy; on the contrary, the challenge has sharpened the vision.

According to Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori, a functional city is defined by the conditions for a good life that support happiness.

“The most functional city in the world is a community that offers its citizens the best possible conditions for a good urban life. The exceptional situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic has proven that a well-functioning society based on trust is strong even when faced with a crisis,” Mayor Vapaavuori asserts

“The management of the crisis in Helsinki and Finland has strengthened confidence in our best qualities – that we’re reliable, well-organized, trustworthy and predictable. I hope that we will retain these qualities.”

The Helsinki City Strategy is now complemented by a post-crisis programme. The programme answers the question, how Helsinki is the most functional city in the world both during the crisis and afterwards.

Makings of a good life in Helsinki

Skaters in a skate park. Photo: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy, Helsinki Marketing

One key element of a good life in Helsinki is equality, which is manifest in the availability and quality of services, area development and public participation.

Areas are developed on an equal basis to ensure that all parts of the city are dynamic and pleasant and that they have a distinctive character. Divergence between areas is prevented and differences in welfare narrowed with housing policies that mix various types of housing and with positive discrimination.

Citizens are increasingly engaged in the development of the city. Last year saw the first participatory budgeting programme in Helsinki, which allowed citizens to decide on some uses of local budgets. Young people make their voices heard through the Ruuti youth participation system.

Another key element of a good life in Helsinki is safety. The city’s safety is proven by surveys that rank Finland the world’s safest country (World Economic Forum 2017) and Helsinki the world’s second safest city (Mercer 2017). According to a local survey, the perceived safety of Helsinki residents has improved in recent years (City of Helsinki and the Police 2018).

A good life in Helsinki is also created by the sea, cleanness and nature, as well as by versatile cultural and sports services. Nature is close by, waterfronts and many islands are open for recreational uses, and everybody has access to the sea. Cultural and sports services are available in all parts of the city.

A good work-life balance

A man relaxing by the sea. Photo: Jussi Hellsten, Helsinki Marketing

One of Helsinki’s special strengths is a good work-life balance. Functional services including public transport guarantee more free time to Helsinki residents.

“It’s easy to accomplish a great work-life balance in a city where residents spend an average of only 26 minutes commuting,” Mayor Vapaavuori points out.

A good work-life balance is also one of Helsinki’s strengths in attracting international talent.

In addition, Helsinki develops smart and digital urban solutions for saving energy and in mobility and living. One measure of successful solutions is one hour a day saved for residents in everyday routines.

City of Helsinki studies welfare and quality of life

Accordeon player at Hakaniemi market square. Photo: Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang, Helsinki Marketing

The World Happiness Report is based on a survey in which respondents are asked to rate their lives on a scale of 0–10.

“Above all, the happiness surveyed in the World Happiness Report describes the satisfaction of citizens with the functionality of the city, living and everyday routines,” says Research Director Katja Vilkama of the City of Helsinki Urban Research and Statistics. The unit supports the City decision-making.

According to Vilkama, Helsinki studies the living conditions and welfare of citizens from multiple perspectives. Many surveys include questions related to the quality of life.

“The quality of life is made up of many elements, one of which is perceived happiness,” says the City of Helsinki health and welfare coordinator Stina Högnabba.

Högnabba reminds us that an evaluation of the quality of life must include all aspects affecting people’s lives.

“There can be many underlying factors that contribute to well-being or ill-being, such as perceived loneliness, which is directly reflected on perceived happiness.”

The welfare and health of the citizens of Helsinki are good compared with the national averages. According to a report on health, illness and lifestyles in Helsinki published in April 2020, the quality of life improved and chronic conditions decreased in Helsinki during the 2010s. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting state of emergency on welfare can only be seen in later surveys.

Finland has positive vibes

A girl and a woman swimming in the Töölönlahti Bay. Photo: Lauri Rotko, Helsinki Marketing

Antti Kauppinen, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, has studied happiness. He says that the concept of happiness is related to individuals’ positive sentiments regarding matters of importance to them.

“Many elements of happiness are realized in Finland,” Kauppinen says.

“One key element of happiness is a safe place in the world, where one doesn’t need to worry about the basic things of life and where one can live without anxiety, stress and depression. There are many aspects in Finnish society that promote a positive general atmosphere in society, including perceived safety, trust in the police and authorities, and a welfare state that lowers stress levels.”

“When individuals feel that they are cared for and valued, we’re well on our way to achieve happiness.”

“Another key element of happiness is a perception of being able to accomplish things. This element is supported in Finland by equality, which affects the perception of achievement.”

How will Finland fare in future happiness surveys?

“We have every reason to expect that Finland will continue to rank among the top countries. We’re a prosperous country that possesses the preconditions to remain happy,” Kauppinen asserts.

Text by Johanna Lemola
Photos: Jussi Hellsten, Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy, Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang, Lauri Rotko, Helsinki Marketing

Read more:

World Happiness Report 2020 
Cities and Happiness: A Global Ranking and Analysis 

Research and statistics on welfare in Helsinki (in Finnish):

Living conditions and welfare in Helsinki
Health, illness and lifestyles in Helsinki. Helsinki City Executive Office statistics 2020:5 (pdf)
A summary of youth welfare 2020 (pdf)