Who would have thought it? The famously melancholic Fins take first place in the World Happiness Report – we went in search of clues to the puzzle of the world’s happiest nation.
Maybe it was the moment when, after two days on an otherwise deserted island, I carried the drinking water from the cistern to our hut by the light of the midnight sun. Maybe it was when I managed to get my first sauna fire going with only dry grass and birch bark for fuel. Or was it the afternoon in Helsinki, when I sat alongside locals of all ages at the Allas Sea Pool, probably the most democratic and beautiful of inner-city outdoor baths? Each with a Lapin Kulta beer in one hand, we gazed across the glittering harbor waters, and it felt as though we had all the time in the world and zero responsibilities – except for the burgers we were about to order.
It was probably the sum of all those moments and many similar ones that, after ten days in Finland, left me with the sense that I finally understood why this Nordic country is supposed to be the happiest in the world, in spite of the long, dark winters and the reputedly melancholic bent of its inhabitants. My brief was to find out how the Fins do it. My personal goal was to find out what I could take back home with me, what I could learn here.
Finland placed first in the UNO’s World Happiness Report for the first time in 2018 and once again in 2019. Alongside income per head, health and life expectancy in the 156 countries included in the ranking, criteria such as a sense of freedom, social generosity, condemnation of corruption, and trust were also taken into account. Like Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, which followed on its heels in the ranking, Finland attaches great importance to social cohesion, as the authors cite by way of explanation for its top position: “These countries share the conviction that human happiness is dependent on a sound system of social support and good public services even if it means the taxes they have to pay are quite high.” All the Scandinavian states made it into the top ten in the happiness chart, which was first published in 2012; Germany is in 15th place.
“Yes, I read in the paper that we came first,” says Reija Nikander, a muscular woman with short-cropped hair, who works as an adventure guide in the eco camp in Nuuksio National Park. Then she takes a long while to consider why. We’ve put up our tents between the trees 45 minutes northwest of the Finnish capital and we will also be lighting our own fire later on. “The solitude,” says Reija finally. Alone in the endless forests is where she feels happy, she tells us. We travel on to the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. There at the latest, after an evening dip in the lake, we too feel the calming effect of nature’s constant presence; how it slows everything down in a good way and opens our eyes. This isn’t true only of visitors like us, the locals also look very mellow. After observing our Finnish neighbors during my stay in a mökki (the typical Finnish holiday cabin) at Käringsund holiday village, I venture a few – certainly unreliable – generalizations. A Fin is already well on the way to contentment when he’s sitting outside a sauna with a beer, or playing minigolf with the children, or driving his gleaming, chrome American road cruiser at virtual walking speed. This is not how stress looks.
But peace and nature alone cannot explain the phenomenon. After all, the U.N. researchers place the emphasis on social cohesion. Reija thinks again. “It’s both, really,” she says, “when people get on my nerves, I can escape into nature. But then I look forward to being back with my friends again.” Social cohesion is likely strong here because Finnish towns and cities tend to be small: “We know each other.” Frank Martela agrees with this. He is currently studying the psychology and philosophy of happiness at Helsinki University. “Fins trust each other and their government; the democratic system works. We know that these are key factors which contribute to a high level of contentment.” His advice for visitors – almost classic – is to visit a sauna, the “window on the Finnish soul.” Nakedness levels social differences and hierarchies,” he says. “Silence isn’t something we put up with here; we welcome silence.” Being as happy as a Fin does not mean making a great show of joyful feelings, but being quietly content with the way your own life is going.
It seems that the paradox of Finnish happiness lies in this contrast of happily complementary contradictions: solitude and society; nature and high tech; ease and efficiency; equanimity and ambition. Restaurants serve traditional fare, but always prepared from regional, organic produce. Finland is like a mixture of Zurich and Sydney: The infrastructure is alarmingly perfect, always in excellent working order; there’s always available Internet and it’s always fast – even on a deserted island, you get 5G. Big, new automobiles cruise along well-maintained highways but never exceed 120 kilometers per hour. In our holiday village, teenagers patrol the pathways every morning with trash grabbers, picking up even the tiniest scrap of chewing gum wrapper. Even the freeway restaurant is a haven of wellbeing, with soothing music, everything spotlessly clean, and a backlit photo wallpaper of birches on one wall.
So much attention to detail could seem intimidating and soulless if it weren’t for the Fins themselves, who – pardon the clichés – are less like meticulous Swiss and more like laid-back Australians. Often sporting tattoos, many of the men have a beard and a beer gut, and although they start off reserved, they often relax into incredibly kind and helpful. They enjoy the marvelously smooth-running machinery of their native country as a matter of course. And often enough, there’s a cosmopolitan outlook and keen business acumen behind the outdoorsy look. Johan Mörn, for instance, doesn’t just manage several mini-islands, on the smallest of which, Sviskär, we are spending the night in the only cabin on the island, in fact, which has four beds and a pit latrine, he also came up with the ingenious idea of marketing this nature experience under the banner of “new luxury,” with catering included – delivered to us part-time Robinsons by boat – and a cooperation with a French Champagne company. This latter is testing whether its product ages better in the deep water at the bottom of the sea or in a wine cellar. Johan, a weathered bear of a man, talks about events attended by international wine critics who came by for a tasting – this also explains the round indentations in the wooden garden tables on the main island, Silverskär: Their diameter exactly matches that of a Champagne bottle. This level of originality and chutzpah can only lead to success if they come from someone who no longer has to worry about lots of other things simply because those things work; because they live in the politically most stable and safest country in the world, with high quality of life and clean nature – in a country whose people have greater trust in their fellow citizens than the people of any other EU country.
The little everyday things that make us happy: riding a bicycle in the rain, occasionally picking mushrooms or berries
Author Katja Pantzar is Finnish, but she was raised in Canada and only returned to her native country as an adult. This has sharpened her awareness of local phenomena, which she recently explained in her book The Finnish Way Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. Inadequately translated as “determination”, or “perseverance,” sisu is what Pantzar sees as the nub of the phenomenon: “Sisu is about accepting challenges,” she says, “it is the ability to find your limits in the face of adversity.” Specifically, it can be very small things, like cycling to work instead of taking the car even when the weather’s bad; spending more time in nature, and picking mushrooms or berries there instead of buying all your food at the supermarket. It became clear after just a few days here in Finland that women have just as much sisu as men; gender equality is a given here.
When In Mariehamm, the capital of the autonomous region of Åland, I made the blunder of asking a local about the man heading the government there and stood brusquely corrected: “The head of government is a woman.” When we were talking about a local Viking festival and I ventured the notion that there would likely be toy swords for the boys, the Finnish woman was stunned: “The swords are naturally for girls, as well!”
In 1906, Finland became the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage, 12 years before Germany. The country increased its day-care facilities for children decades ago, and schools have been providing free lunches for their students since the 1940s. Teachers feel personally responsible for their students’ results. Learning takes place in school, not during homework time with parents. This leaves everyone more time for leisure activities with family and friends, which in turn strengthens cohesion and trust. “Every Fin has at least one hobby, and most have several,” says Roope Musto, who works for the Katajanokka design hotel in Helsinki, but was raised in London. As a result, he takes a kindly if wondering view of some of his fellow Fins’ peculiarities: After work or school, everyone heads off to their club; that’s how it is here.” Where does he take us after we’ve talked? To a soccer game.
Back in Helsinki, I stroll over to the Allas Sea Pool again. It’s five in the afternoon and the Fins are coming from work. I adapt my pace to theirs, climb into my swimsuit in the group changing room, and then enjoy a sauna with infusion followed by a couple of laps in the big swimming pool. The Fins are the only nation in the world to have a word for the activity of getting drunk alone at home in their underwear: kalsarikännit. It recalls the taciturn antiheroes of Aki Kaurismäki’s films, evokes long, dark, lonely nights – also cozy comfort Finnish style. And that’s how it will stay, regardless whether or not the Fins keep in topping the World Happiness Report in the future. Hey, the beer’s cold and the burgers are on their way.