Kamilla Sultanova
9 min readDec 6, 2020


It’s dark, wet and stormy, what makes Finland happy?

What Makes Finland Happy

I have worked with Finns, both in my previous career in shipping for 11 years and currently as an entrepreneur. Finland used to be one of the markets in my portfolio for container trading when I lived in Denmark and I learned a lot about the country I now live in from the former Finnish ambassador in Denmark.

After I moved here, I got the chance to have a typical ABC buffet lunch with a skillful electrician in Kotka, to watch Finnish ice hockey with Jägermeister shots in Helsinki Hartwall Arena and I even worked as a tour guide for 2 summers showing off the jewels of Helsinki has to offer. Today I want to share my joy for Finland and what makes Finland happy.

When I heard about the Happiness School of Finland earlier this year, I was instantly intrigued. The campaign by Visit Finland was meant to teach anyone curious about the wisdom of Finnish culture. After all, Finland got the title of “Happiest Country in the World” for the third time in a row (2018, 2019, 2020).

The school was supposed to welcome visitors and teach them how to learn happiness as a skill. They were open to a magnitude of approaches, some of them being to reconnect with nature, exercise, and embrace the calm. I applied for one of the spots as a teacher but with the covid crisis, the school also had to be canceled.

But I wanted to take the idea of the happiness school as an inspiration to share with you what I consider true happiness in Finland.

For me, true happiness means to be living in a society that enables equality and opportunities, enables voices and life-giving experiences to its residents. Immigrants need to be given agency and a feeling of belonging in this country. They deserve to take up space — especially in the happiest country in the world.

What does it mean to take up space?

Of course, Finns love their physical space which is famously called omatila. No other person should intrude on your omatila in public. You can see it when people are waiting for the bus, sitting in the tram, or going through the security check at the airport. 1,5m is the standard distance — even before coronavirus pandemic.

But I argue that a central part of Finnish happiness is giving mental space for themselves and others. It’s the space where it’s okay to be in full silence cherishing the present moment with one another. It’s the space where we choose to live. The space to make our own decisions.

At first, this has been quite a cultural shock because even in my second home Denmark, people speak much more and avoid the silence as much as possible. This ability to pause and being okay with silence is also a reflection of mental space.

The welfare system supports you in creating what you crave — if it’s studying, starting a company, becoming a researcher, or an activist. In other words, you can get the (financial) freedom and the mental space to start something new. Even more so, the psychological space of accepting who you are. This has not come by itself but it took a lot of struggle to reach this state for Finland and in my case, I also had 12 years of experience living as an immigrant in Denmark which did help considerably.

It is a healthy process to learn to set your boundaries and be able to communicate the same without feeling that you violate your or another person’s space and feelings. Unfortunately, a few big factors are affecting you. Social media makes you available everywhere and we know the how big toll social media is taking on every single user of the media regardless your postcode, gender, race etc. The movie Social dilemma offers a whole bouquet.

Living in an individualistic, autonomous cultures vs. relational cultures wire us differently. Knowing the differences of how we interact with each other and what values we carry can reinforce the connections, interdependence, the beauty of belonging and staying curious for each other’s differences. And also appreciate each other better.

How can we participate in the Finnish society

Our next step in Finland needs to be to offer the psychological space for anyone who is considered “different”. During this summer inequalities which arose globally showed clearly that we live in a world of racism, patriarchy, sexism, and violence coupled with economic insecurity and a climate and health crisis. Despite Finland is ranked by Bloomberg as 5th best out of 50 managing coronavirus pandemic, what makes Finland happy needs to include all of us, not just some of us. This also refers to discussions on Finnishness and who has a right to belong. Global Dignity Finland has offered dozens of storytelling events for Finns to share their stories on belonging and resilience while living in Finland.

Olivia Chandrasekeram, student at Business college Helsinki, Dignity impact 24.11.20

Both mental and physical spaces are needed to participate. If you don’t participate in society and are proactive in your life, you risk missing out on the essential benefits that Finland offers, the freedom, access to networks and equality. We speak often about trust and how it comes out through daily human connections. I see it in the form of communities, schools, workspaces, clubs and urban spaces.


During covid I discovered what binds us together in Finland as a collective. We know time and time again how hard it is to build a network, enter a network to succeed. As a firm believer in the power of collective action, I interviewed several Finnish community leaders, makers, advocates in Finland and trust was recurring key-word which makes Finland such a great place to live. Watch conversations on community building in Finland on Youtube.

Trust and social capital

Learning and discovering ways to belong personally, I have been focused on for many years on social capital and how to make it tangible both individually and collectively. Social capital, as an important construct in social sciences. It captures shared common beliefs and density of associational networks within a community (Woolcock 2001). Regions with high social capital tend to have higher levels of mutual trust and display greater contract enforceability through the power of the community (Portes 1998). (If you want to learn more about social capital in practice and how it can affect communities, I recommend to check out the episode of my community building webcast #RiseinUnity in which I talk to Sharron Todd, owner of the Brooklyn Café & in Bakery in Helsinki.

We need a more holistic view of social capital, and how societies are led needs to be part of the conversation. There is a value in each and every voice beihg heard. We see it today via e.g. storytelling events (Global dignity), Cultura Fest, Artist labs (UrbanaApa) or public speaking events (Talk the Talk), constructive dialogue campaigns by Time Out Foundation, mentoring networks, reverse-mentoring and antiracism discussions for taking an active stand. When everybody is accepted, no matter what they look like, everybody is happier. Diversity, trust, value, and belonging are essential elements of social capital and need to be pushed to a higher level to allow more people to co-create a happier and fair Finland.

As long as we can keep investing and sharing social capital locally, we can claim, own and promote the Finnish values of peace, trust and equality globally.

Everyone deserves their space in Finland

We need to create these spaces for anyone who looks “different”, so they can also claim the space. My way of working with this topic is to encourage companies, event organizers, cities and schools to revisit how they build social capital in their organizations and in their projects. Trust is embedded in social capital but it also needs to be sustained over time. To a person reading: how diverse are your networks, and how representative are they of the local communities?

One option is to get companies of different sectors to commit and build mentoring and volunteering programs offline and online. Any professional can benefit from civic engagement and be part of something bigger than merely a business. Each stakeholder, no matter who they are can help build trust, practice their citizenship in communities and build intentional communities. You need different spaces to feel like you belong, which allows us to develop an individual and collective concept of the self. The benefit is measured in businesses through increased innovation, employee loyalty, retention and inclusive company culture.

This summer I gave an interview to a local NGO Nicehearts which builds a community of change agents. My call for action was that in order to feel a master of your soul, one needs to adopt a different decision-making pattern. If you come from a country where decisions were made for you, you need to learn to make decisions here on your own. It can feel truly liberating and for that, again, we need guidance, encouragement, role models and social capital exchange to see these possibilities around Finnish communities.

We can experience it in the beautiful talkoot culture of collective Finnish volunteer gatherings in neighborhoods or sports clubs. We see it in the association and volunteering culture which makes civic participation tangible and we see this in a form of mentoring programs, which bring valuable and transformative life experiences and make society more welcoming with one person at a time. One idea is to invite Finns home to connect and bring your culture to the surface. (Can be done online in some orchestrated sense but do not do this in covid pandemic especially now, winter 2020)

One of the timely book for 2020 is The Serendipity mindset by Christian Busch, who encourages us to look at all potential opportunities and be open to the unexpected also during times of uncertainty. This is what Finnish community and trust truly enables, to create one’s good luck, by being able on a side of people you admire, now during virtual conferences, zoom calls, etc. We can’t plan everything but I know to grow, change and develop resilience, the serendipity is real as long as we are open-minded to each other.

Midsummer trip to Repovesi national park 2020

One of the best movies on the meaning of happiness was Into the wild. The overarching theme of the story was that happiness is real when shared. I can tell you it is possible to gain, experience, share that feeling of trust and make it contagious for many who live or want to settle down in Finland.

An obligation of any citizen, who enjoys the privileges of a trust-based society is to make it tangible and share it with others who has not experienced it.

The beauty of social cohesion lies in shared social capital that creates a ripple effect.

We need to create spaces, claim, and cherish them.

If you want to learn more about inclusion and how to create a space of diversity in Finnish organizations and corporations, you can book my services as a speaker, consultant or workshop facilitator.

We can only succeed together

Creating spaces for immigrants to grow and thrive is incredibly important. It is also important to make both immigrants and global diverse talent empowered locally so both feel equally important in the country. It’s not just about getting the right people into the country or your company — you want them to stay, thrive and be part of the Finnish story.

Belonging is equally important for the employees and their partners. Too often, a lack of networks and community leads to saying goodbye to Finland and families moving away. Through my workshops and consultancy, I help businesses and public stakeholders build resilient and cost-efficient onboarding and retention strategies for diverse colleagues.

If you want to retain international talent in your company and offer immigrants spaces to flourish in Finnish society, you can find out more about my work on my website.

Happy 103, Dear Finland and Friends!



Kamilla Sultanova

I’m a keynote speaker and entrepreneur with a passion for diversity and inclusion and all things cross-sectoral.