Freedom of will and gratitude characterise Finnish perceptions of happiness

‘Being happy’ is built on the paradox between the self and others, which anchors happiness to a feeling of pride in myself on one hand, and to gratitude towards others and the world around us on the other.

Doctoral Researcher Jennifer De Paola from the University of Helsinki has investigated the concepts of happiness – as a daily and empirical object of signification – that are being formed among Finns on digital media platforms.

One of the findings of De Paola’s doctoral research is that the advice on attaining happiness currently circulating on social media is based on feelings of freedom of volition and gratitude. This leads to various pieces of advice surrounding the usefulness and possibility of striving for happiness – people are instructed to do so as well as to stop such pursuit altogether.

“Together these paradoxes form a whole which I have dubbed the hegemonic presentation of happiness. It means that you trust yourself. Through action you can make your own happiness. You feel gratitude and accept the facts of your life,” says De Paola.

Attitudes towards the World Happiness Report are either positive or negative

The thesis reveals that online articles regarding the UN’s World Happiness Report are constructing a narrative which focuses on Finland as the ‘winner’ while taking an ambivalent attitude towards the results of the Report and the concept of happiness used in it.

Readers’ opinions on the World Happiness Report divide into two separate audiences, each assuming respectively a positive or negative stance.

The positive audience accepts the hegemonic interpretation of happiness. The negative audience questions the emphasis on freedom and gratitude in relation to happiness, moving attention away from the grateful individual who actively strives for happiness and towards their external circumstances.

“In this way the negative audience is constructing an alternative representation of happiness which could be called polemic,” states De Paola.

The thesis comprises three qualitative sub-articles which use as a theoretical matrix the theory of social representation (Moscovici, 1961/2008). Each sub-study focuses on a different area of happiness.

“The sub-studies prove that the different contexts in which happiness is discussed activate different anchoring and objectification processes and antinomies, which then construct the social representation of happiness,” De Paola continues.

As Finland has retained its top position in the UN’s World Happiness Report for five consecutive years (2018–2022), the thesis remains topical.

Sub-study I focuses on how being happy is conceptualised on social media by analysing Instagram photos and their associated hashtags as well as captions featuring the hashtag #onnellinen (‘happy’). Sub-study II examines the general understanding of how happiness can be attained in contemporary contexts by analysing quotes, sayings and aphorisms which circulate on Instagram and Facebook in the form of inspirational ‘memes’ in both Finnish and Italian cultural contexts.

The goal of sub-study III is to determine what happens when ‘common sense’ understandings of happiness collide with scientific conceptions of happiness. This was studied by examining how Finnish online news outlets and their readers reacted to and interpreted the results of the UN’s World Happiness Report.



Jennifer De Paola defended her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Happiness and its digital publics – social representations of happiness in social media and digital journalism arenas’ on 12 April 2022.

The doctoral thesis will be published in the series Publications of the Faculty of Social Sciences 208/2022.

The thesis is also available in electronic form through the Helda repository.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:

Jennifer De Paola (interviews in English)

phone +358 40 501 2016