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Photo by Julia Kivelä
Part of the recipe for Finnish happiness? Making time to commune with the great outdoors, as well as to sweat it out in a sauna. In Finland, you'll find saunas just about everywhere, even on floating sauna boats like these.
Two hundred days of winter. Two whole months where the sun never rises above the horizon. Temperatures that can drop to 20 degrees below zero. Welcome to Finland, the “Happiest Country in the World.”
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No, that’s not sarcasm. Perhaps counterintuitively, the rightful titleholder to this U.N.-backed designation is not found along some balmy and breezy island shores in the laid-back Caribbean. It’s in the far north, at the gateway to the Arctic. Finland ranks as the Happiest Country in the World for the third year in a row, which might be surprising to some—even to the Finns themselves (despite having a reputation for not showing their emotions). Indeed, this Nordic nation scores highest in the World Happiness Report for life satisfaction (meaning, how happy they perceive themselves to be) with weighed factors that include income, healthy life expectancy (at 81.4 years), freedom to make life choices, and a government that is deemed generally trustworthy.
So what is the secret behind Finland’s success, which has found a way for maximum contentment despite a fairly inhospitable climate and long periods of little sunlight? Here are seven lessons we can pull from Finnish culture, so we, too, can learn to revel—even in the darkness.
Finns embrace a unique spirit of fortitude for thriving in tough times, which for them, often manifests via the weather. This national ideology even has a name: It’s called sisu, and it’s at the core of Finns’ well-being, suggests Katja Pantzar, a Helsinki-based journalist and author of The Finnish Way, which delves into the concept. As Pantzar explains, sisu is focused on persevering when the odds are against you and to view challenges as opportunities. “Instead of waiting for a warm sunny day,” she offers, “many Finns practice daily sisu by heading out in any kind of weather for a brisk walk or cycle, or to spend time in nature.” These simple and sensible activities are at the heart of what keeps Finns happy, Pantzar concludes, adding “I keep returning to this Finnish saying, ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’” And living with sisu, for Pantzar, like many Finns, means bundling up in the snow to bike to work or swimming in the sea year-round— even when it’s covered in ice.
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“Forest therapy” is free in Finland. Indeed, spending even 30 minutes absorbing nature’s healing powers has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and depression and there’s no shortage of woodland to go around for all in Finland. Forests cover 75 percent of the country’s land area, the highest proportion in the world, in fact, and all have a right to enjoy it. In Finland, this traditional legal concept is called “everyman’s right,” which allows the general public to roam freely in natural areas like forests, lakes, and rivers—and without obtaining permission from landowners when said areas fall on private lands. This means you can camp out overnight in a tent, vehicle, or boat anywhere you like, so long as it causes no damage or disturbance to the landowner. Keep in mind that while everyone is free to pick wild berries and mushrooms, that’s not true of apples or plums—theft of these cultivated fruits will indeed cause a landowner’s happiness to drop.
Sweating it out in a sauna is a Finnish national pastime. With an estimated two million saunas in Finland—for a population of 5.4 million—there’s plenty of room for everyone. As revered community gathering spaces in both the public domain and private homes, saunas are a place to purify body and soul. They also foster a unique national culture of naked togetherness that’s believed to created lasting effects on well-being that go beyond relaxing muscles and the mind.
Ultimately, coming together in the sauna creates a sense of community with an equalizing effect, Pantzar believes. In the sauna, everyone is stripped down not just of clothes but also of obvious signs of profession or societal status. (Note that saunas are typically segregated into men’s and women’s, although some are coed and allow bathing suits.) “Relaxing in the sauna levels the playing field as clothing and material possessions are left behind in the changing rooms,” says Pantzar. Also, from an early age (even toddlers come in for a brief time), Finns are used to being naked in the sauna with their family and friends, which can help create a comfort with and acceptance of their bodies, too.
Finns embrace a Nordic minimalism and are known to prefer well-made, sustainable, functional items that will stand the test of time. There is a robust secondhand scene in Finland, too, and on the community-driven “Cleaning Day,” the country turns into one big outdoor flea market. Finland is a country of borrowers, too—as the most literate country in the world, Finns are passionate users of public libraries: 5.5 million people borrow close to 68 million books a year (some from Helsinki’s library from the future).
This focus on thoughtful, sustainable consumption is not only good for your budget and the environment but it makes you feel good, too, says Pantzar. “Being a conscious consumer can help to address the challenges we’re facing on a global level—one of them is that we’re drowning in a sea of stuff, so eliminating unnecessary purchases can help you feel as though you’re doing something good for the world.”
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Finland has a proud tradition of trying to give all children an equal, healthy start in life. In 1938, the country introduced “baby boxes” in an attempt to tackle a declining birth rate and high infant mortality—these government-distributed packages of clothing and other useful items remain available to all new mothers today. In addition, Finns benefit from a relatively strong social safety net, including affordable daycare and virtually free elementary, secondary, and university education. Plus, “Spending time in nature and the outdoors from an early age, in a relatively safe country where children can walk home from school starting at the age of seven or eight years old, fosters a healthy sense of independence,” says Pantzar.
Studies have shown that social media plays a part in our feelings of discontentment by encouraging us to constantly compare ourselves to others and by causing us to miss out on the moments happening away from our screens. Finnish expert and well-being researcher Dr. Frank Martela believes that Finns are generally not as eager to put forward a polished view of their life on social media and to brag about success and wealth.
“Another thing [to learn from the Finns] is not to set too high expectations about what one needs for a happy life,” says Martela. “Finns, in general, are not too ambitious about what life should offer them but rather accept their lot in life. And this of course can help them to feel satisfied with what they currently have.”
Finland is a place of extremes: hot saunas followed by cold plunges, dark days followed by midnight sun, and birds chirping followed by . . . death metal? Yes, Finland has more heavy metal bands per capita than anywhere else in the world; it’s a way for the Finns, perhaps, to channel the frequent darkness.
Finns accept that dark days are part of everyday life and even revel in them. Martela argues that their aversion to happiness might paradoxically make them happier, and he believes that the world could learn from their willingness to embrace the less-sunny aspects of living—to accept negative feelings as a normal part of life.
“In general, I think Finns are relatively satisfied with their lives in Finland,” says the Finnish well-being scholar. “However, they might not consider themselves as the most joyous or smiling bunch of people. Rather the self-image of Finns is that we are a relatively melancholic nation, who like to listen to sad tangos or angry heavy metal instead of happy songs. I think this acceptance of negative emotions as part of life might actually have a positive effect on the happiness of Finns.” Martela concludes, “Trying to suppress one’s negative emotions is bad for one’s well-being, so it is better to learn to embrace them and, through that, actually learn to accept one’s life for what it is.”
This article originally appeared online on April 17, 2019; it was updated on March 20, 2020, to include current information.
>> Next: The Traveler's Guide to Happiness
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