Thursday, 7 February 2013

Could human warmth and interaction be worth more than gold?

Recently the results of a gallup poll listed Trinidad and Tobago as the fifth happiest nation in the world based on feelings of well-being. In the poll people were asked questions such as if they smiled a lot yesterday, if they felt respected and well-rested and if they had learned or accomplished something interesting that day. Our Latin American neighbours Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador and Venezuela were in the top four. These results are opposed to some previous studies which measured happiness based mostly on one's standard of living. In that poll relatively wealthy Scandinavian nations like Denmark and Norway, and other "first world" countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Austria were in the top five. Finland, where I live was number nine on this list.

It makes you wonder. Could it be possible that people from so-called "third world" countries are actually happier than those from "first world" countries? If so why? Well some friends and I were discussing this new gallup poll on Facebook. And we all agreed that regardless of Trinidad and Tobago's economic and social problems such as crime, faltering education and health systems and a large class divide, Trinbagonians are still very happy people.  We noted that despite the hardships people are more friendly with each other than in many other countries in the north. People can count on their neighbour, family or friends to help them out and are more optimistic. In addition, your dollar or euro can stretch further in many ways in Trinidad and Tobago than in Finland for instance. With our gas and oil subsidies and incredibly low property taxes, and cheaper labour the cost of living is not as high as in many developed nations. For instance my old school friends in Trinidad who have comparable levels of education and professions can afford household help because labour is cheaper. That might not seem like a big deal but consider how hiring a housekeeper can prevent bickering over who's turn it is to vacuum or prevent resentment towards your spouse for doing less housework. Or how being able to hire a nanny means that mummy can have a nap during the day if the baby has kept her up all night and still have time to exercise or go run errands and not feel rushed and stressed every day. Or think of how having someone cut your front lawn and trim your hedges every week means you don't have to nag your husband to do it. It definitely makes for a happier life.

On the other hand the more money you make in Finland the more tax you pay. In addition to which labour is very expensive so to hire a nanny or housekeeper would mean paying a salary of at least 1400 euros a month. The strong Finnish work ethic means that people work hard trying to show that they are independent and industrious and it is almost a sign of weakness to ask for help. Add to that the cold interpersonal relations and you can see that this society can be harsh.  People tend to internalize their stresses and problems rather than talk about them. Hence, depression and suicide is much higher than in Latin America and the Caribbean for instance. Sure my life here is easier in many ways. The health care system is much better than in Trinidad, though still not perfect. Everything runs well and on time so it is not much of a hassle to go to the authorities to deal with things like social security or passport renewal etc. If I am laid off tomorrow and in dire financial straights there is a wide array of financial support I can access from the state. There is very little crime and even the supposed bad (low income) areas are very safe. And of course Finland is economically more prosperous than Trinidad and Tobago. But the quality of everyday life is sometimes a struggle. Being a stay at home mom I realize now how very little human warmth and interaction there is here in Finland. If you don't see any friends and family you will not get it from strangers. Most people walk around looking miserable even when they are supposedly having fun. For instance my husband complains about the middle aged Finnish women who, in the summer time, love to dress in their bright summer dresses and go to the market square with their shopping basket, the whole while with a big frown on their faces. No one talks to or even looks at or smiles at strangers. For people living alone it can be a life saver just to get out of the house and have someone smile at them and have a mini chat. In Trinidad and Tobago you can't take public transport or go to the store without someone starting a conversation. And many times those are the funniest and most interesting conversations you will ever have. People smile a lot more and there is a more relaxed and happy atmosphere which in and of itself can lift your spirits. Of course the lovely sunny weather year round helps a lot too.

A former colleague at the University of Helsinki has echoed similar sentiments many times on his Facebook page. He has noticed that there are a lot of colleagues who complain of burn out at work and a lot of depression in Finland. He says that the Finnish society can be easy but the interpersonal relations are cold. He believes that if more Finns would start being more friendly and warm to each other they would probably feel better and have less burn out at their jobs and less depression in their lives. This phenomenon of depression and suicide seems to be a common thing in cultures which stress hard work, achievement and independence above all. Japan and Singapore for instance have many stressed people and high suicide rates. Singapore also has wonderful tropical weather like Trinidad but people reported being unhappy in the gallup poll. Singapore was 46 on the list. But the Japanese and Singaporeans work too much and don't play hard enough and so are much more stressed than Trinis who probably play harder than they work. See the eighth paragraph in the following link.

Many people from developed nations would wonder how could anyone from a "third world " country be happy? People like the Finnish politician who's statement has become Finnish lexicon "To be born in Finland is like winning the lottery". Or people like my in-laws who cannot understand the dream to one day go back to the Caribbean. "Your life is much better here of course" or "Who would want to move to Trinidad?" are just a couple of statements they have uttered. First it shows that many "first worlders" do not understand that many so called "third world" countries like Trinidad are actually thriving economies in their own right and are not all squalid slums of poverty. According to the OECD Trinidad and Tobago actually achieved developed nation status in October 2011.
Secondly it shows that many people forget that there is more to life and happiness than just economic well being. They do not understand that human beings, being social animals, are happiest when they can have human warmth, support and interaction regardless of their wealth or lack thereof.


  1. I read this at the right time. Once again I'm out here in the world dealing with folks who seem to think I come from a place where we swing on vines. I can totally relate to everything you say after spending time in both places recently. I guess it was inevitable that a Trini like me would wither in Finland. But you seem to do really well. Kudos for that. I agree that T&T is a happy place but I think it's getting less and less so. Social change is taking place rapidly and people seem so stressed out and angry now. I was still able to experience the joy of talking to strangers but more often, I had to deal with rude, inconsiderate people (except in Tobago). And the general lack of safety is a major source of stress as well.

  2. Hi!

    I read all of the posts in your blog and had some questions. I'm an african american female from California who has travelled all over the U.S., but never to Europe. I honestly hate living in the U.S., though--the standard of living here is just not what I want for me and my child (I'm a single mom). After I finish undergrad, I've been thinking about completing my medical school education somewhere in the European Union...Finland seems to have a lot of great things about it.

    But, I'm concerned about a few things. Racism, weather, support from the government as a non-citizen, making friends in such a cold culture, the cost of living there.

    How do you feel about these things?

    I'd probably complete my medical degree in another EU country first before moving to Finland, though, because Finland's medical education is not considered equivalent to that of the U.S. I intend to keep my U.S. citizenship.

    1. Hi Kali,
      I promise to reply as soon as i have time to give an extensive answer.

    2. Hi Kal,

      I am not sure if Finland is the easiest place for a Black American, single mom to move to. First off it is not easy to get permission to move to Finland in the first place. It took a lot of paperwork and my boyfriend calling the immigration office every week to get a residence permit. You have to be married or the common law spouse of a Finn, or be coming to study or your employer sent you or you have found a job here before you can come. If you come as a spouse or because you have a job lined up then you will get a residence permit and will get all the same social support as all other Finnish residents and citizens. But if you are a student then you must show that you can support yourself financially as you are only allowed to work 10 hours a week. I think that is standard practice in many countries. As a student in US they requested the same of me. Anyway as a foreign, non-EU student you are not a resident and therefore, not entitled to any social support.

      As a doctor you will most definitely have to learn Finnish before you can take the medical exam or practice medicine. And it will probably take longer than learning French or Spanish as it is a fairly difficult language to learn.

      Then to be honest there is racism in Finland. Luckily in my field of work, scientific research, there are many foreigners and the language used is mostly English so there isn't much racism and I have always been treated fairly. But as a doctor you will have to deal with Finnish clients of all walks of life and some of the older people, especially in some places in the countryside, do not like being served by foreigners. Or at least that's what my friend from Joensu told me. He said the older people in his village would travel to the next village to see the doctor because they did not like that the doctor in their local health centre was Pakistani. However, I just read that the City of Helsinki will start an electronic hiring system that will hide your personal info (age, sex, nationality, marital status etc) from state employers so that should make things more merit based and easier for immigrants to get a job for instance as a doctor in the Helsinki public health department.

      Otherwise. Many people are nice. Especially younger,well traveled people. It may take a long time to make friends with Finns but then again, I didn't make any close American friends when I lived and worked in the small town of Walkersville, Maryland so it all depends on your specific experience and situation. I have a Slovakian friend who was studying her PhD here and she knows everyone in Helsinki because she was so outgoing and willing to be a little pushy in order to make friends. If you are quiet and wait for people to come to you you will not make friends. Plus if you go out and get some hobbies you will meet people so it's not so hard.

      continued in next dialogue box below!

    3. The weather is a real deal breaker though. I won't lie. The winters are long, cold and dark so if you don't think you can handle that don't even bother to come. Because that alone can dampen your experience even if everything else is good.

      The cost of living in Finland is expensive. Housing is expensive. Probably a bit cheaper in the countryside but in Helsinki a 3 to 4 bedroom average-sized-nothing-big- house will cost you 300 000 to 500 000 euros to buy. That would get you a mansion anywhere else! A one room/studio apartment in a central area of Helsinki will be no less than 700 (if you lucky) but usually 800 - 950 euros a month to rent.

      But all in all maybe a move to UK or Netherlands might be a better fit for someone like you. Especially if you don't know anyone. Their societies are a bit friendlier and it might be easier to get a residence permit. At least Trinidadians and some other Commonwealth nationals have special arrangements/relationships with UK so it is easier for us to move there. Everyone in Netherlands can speak English but it may be that as a doctor you have to learn Dutch. I don't know about that.

      Research different countries and see what fits best. Finland is a great country and it works for some immigrants like me but it is not necessarily the easiest place to move to and start over especially if you have not support system here. Hope this helped.

  3. Hi. I'm a trini in Helsinki. Would be great to get to know u.

  4. Material wealth, safety and a well-functioning society & infrastructure does not equal happiness, that is definitely true. It is also true that many Finns are not extremely happy, and can live a fairly isolated life, with few friends or relatives to talk to. Urbanization is still a relatively recent thing here, and many family ties of old days have been lost permanently, as the people increasingly move to cities full of lonely people.

    Most Finns never face the kind of hardships in their life people in less wealthy countries face on a daily basis in some cases. Yet still many turn to alcohol and drugs, or go "a bit loony" :-) in seeking for a meaning and content in their life from practically anything, be it a hobby, an obsession, sport or collecting something. Perhaps this is due to loneliness, I do not know.

    Interaction between people who do not know each other is absolutely minimal in Finland, and politeness considered a norm in many other countries can sometimes be considered "weird", suspicious, or even annoying here! Add to this the cold weather and darkness of the long winter.

    "What's there to be happy about" a friend of mine said. Another considers visible signs of joy somewhat rude and immoral even. "Mankind was made to work and be content - not to frolic like children", he says. He seems never happy about much anyting, to tell you the truth!

    Finns do not usually go around telling people how fabulous their country is. Many (like myself) are downright critical of their own nation, and are more likely to point out the faults and issues here that boast about "how great Finland is, and how good we have it here" - something I hear many foreigners saying about their own countries, be in Afganistan, Iran or USA.

    Perhaps the study referred to here does not really fully consider cultural differences in how different people express themselves. At work we notice when people are asked to describe their competence in some matter how Finns grade themselves very low, whereas some other nationalities are eager to grade themselves very highly, even if they barely know the topic. This is a good example of cultural differences, and the Finnish Lutheran thinking. Be humble, not proud, for pride is a sin..

    The Trinidad & Tobago I know is full of people ready to take the jet plane and fly to the promised land of USA for a better life. People are the biggest export of many "happy islands" of the Caribbean - for various reasons. If life is so joyous and every day is a bliss, then why these people want so to leave..? A question that comes inevitably to mind, with no disrespect to anyone. Food for thought.

    If T&T was a paradise on earth, I'd be living there. I have the right through marriage, and enough money to travel there & buy a nice lot of land with a bigger house I will ever see here. But...realistically, the infrastructure does not work, police does not work, hospitals does not work, roads & traffic are a flippin' nitemare, and bandits rule with ordinary people livin' behind bars. Racial issues, financial name it. Mankind can make a paradise into hell.

    I have met Trini abroad tellin me, how T&T is a virtual paradise on earth. How strange that they live abroad! And simultaneously - only few Trini living in Trinidad tell me how the place resemble Heaven nah..even if most would like to see others think high and positive of their country.

    In general I'd say Trini is more positive in their views of life than Finns ever are, but these kind of studies - weell, I take them with a pinch of salt any day.

  5. I hope you did not get the idea that I was saying Trinidad is a paradise because I wasn't. In fact I'm not sure anywhere is. But I was pointing out that according to the poll money doesn't necessarily make you happy. And I was trying to point out a few reasons why that may be so. I was also trying to point out the narrow minded view some people have, not just in Finland but in many "first world countries" about life in the "third world". I was trying to debunk the idea that we are all living in poverty, squalor and swinging from trees. The idea that life must be horrible and unhappy if you live in a banana republic or some such place and that of course life must be better if you live in a "first world country".

    There is a belief here that as an immigrant you must be trying to escape poverty and or a miserable existence. I have a friend who is and Indian American(as in her family is originally from India) from a wealthy family and she says the first question she gets is whether she works and where. She says they are trying to ascertain whether she is here to live off the welfare. She says she gets ignored in stores until the store employees notice she is wearing Ralph Lauren and speaking with a "yankee" accent. And you know of the harassment that Shiv got from Finnish immigration because the assumption is that no one from a "third world" country could have enough money to be traveling around for fun. When as you said if they only knew the standard of living some people enjoy there with the same money we middle class make here they would be surprised.

    So yes many people flee their home countries for a variety of reasons but it is not necessarily true that they or others in their country find life unlivable there. Most of my school friends still live in Trinidad, have decent jobs and seem to be living just fine. Many have lived in the US, Canada, UK, and many other countries and have since moved back to Trinidad bringing their foreign spouses with them. I probably would be still living in T&T too if life hadn't led me here. My reasons for leaving weren't even economic but personal and wanderlust. But it is interesting to note that some assume I came to Finland because it was better than returning to Trinidad and because I wanted to live off of the Finnish welfare state because that is what all the black immigrants do. Granted these people are mostly late forties and older. And yes Finns are very modest about themselves and their country but everyone buys kotimäinen even if there is no proof that it is any better than the cheaper import. And many think that Finland is better than most countries though they will not come right out and say it. While it's the opposite in Trinidad even in the days when "money was no problem" and crime was low we always thought everything foreign must be better. I sometimes wish we had half the pride in ourselves as the Finnish do in Finland.

  6. Cont'd

    Anyway yes people's positivity is definitely a factor in why Trinis are happier than Finns but I think a lot of it is also about more warmth and human interaction. Living here and visiting Sweden I see there is a definite cultural difference in the way people relate to each other here than in Trinidad or Costa Rica (the only Latin American country I have visited). I think both probably explain our happiness despite more poverty, higher crime and other social problems. And it is happy to note that the rich Trinidadians still think that Trinidad is enough of a paradise that they would like to stay while it is the poor and middle class who leave "for better pastures". So obviously it is not so dysfunctional that everyone wants to leave. So it is mostly for economic reasons why people leave these countries, though nowadays for Trinis it may also be the incredible crime rate.

    But I agree with you, I too am not sure I want to live in Trinidad as it is now. The Trinidad of my youth was a paradise, before the politicians stirred up all this racism for their electoral benefit and most importantly before the crime rate shot through the roof. Because the corruption and improper functioning of services you can tolerate or circumvent with money but the crime is pervasive and I don't fancy living in a mansion within a fence , barbed wire and a gated community.

  7. I tell you, my sis-in-law returned to visit relatives just last year in T&T. I still remember when she left to USA cryin in the year 2000, she didn't wanna go anywhere, cause she was truly a Trini, and happy with the culture. Economics was the factor why she left. But after last visit, she came out sayin she did not recognize the country any more, and how crime & so many other things has change so much she didn't feel at home. Sad...sad for her, because she feels a bit rootless now. My wife had the same experience even earlier.

    You are right, Finns always buy Finnish foods etc, and theres a naive, child-like faith in the heart of many that Finnish food is somehow cleaner and better quality then foreign stuff. This comes from the past, and the learning that Finland is the cleanest and purest. Oh well. Our agriculture used same pesticides & fertilizers as elsewhere, and actually many of the famed lakes are quite polluted...As is the Baltic sea (and no, it isn't only because of Russian and Polish polluting, as many believe, but also due to our own pollution, which has left many areas of Finnish coastline totally dead underwater). I still remember from the 70's some seaside places with visibility to the water being 5 metres down! Now the same place, water look like pea soup.

    Finns could CERTAINLY use a little positive attitude in many ways! The negativity and "slavic" sadness can be overwhelming at times - and yet, as you & I both know, many things are well in this nation. We're far more negative than even Swedes, who certainly suffer from the same weather, and darkness at winter.

    And yes, I agree, Finns often think that the quality of life in so-called "3rd world" is intolerable for all, when this is not true. We used to live in a huge house in Trinidad, a house which was pretty and B-I-G compared to Finnish homes. In the 80s family had 2 cars, TVs in 3 rooms, etc etc. Believe you me, this was not common in a middle-class Finnish family then (or even now). At the same time, class differences, very visible in wealth, were far greater in T&T than here.

    Lastly, it makes me immensely sad these days that the Finnish society seems to turn more and more inwards in many ways, and grudge and suspiciousness towards foreigners is growing. I really think it is. When I speak english on the phone, I see some people look at me as if they are upset. Far more Finns refuse to communicate in english, despite of learning it well in school (they refuse now for the principle of it, not because they could not speak the lingo). And yes, a large number of locals think all foreigners come here to life off the government.

    Apart from populists making the most of the simple-minded & uneducated, and misleading them into believing all foreigners are responsible for all the bad we see happening in economy and crime, it is also the flip-side of the coin that the Finnish society was not at all ready for the refugees coming here from countries which are culturally & religion-wise much further from Finland than T&T ever was. The collision has not happened without casualties, and general tolerance has been one of them. Every negative incident fuels up the flames now, and I for one am genuinely worried about the future, because even the discussion about any problems seems to have gone to the extremes on both sides of the fence (so-called tolerant, and non-tolerant). Time will tell..