A Look at What Makes Finland the World’s Happiest Country

  • A lakeside sauna in Finland. The simple joys of Finnish life, such as saunas, coffee and cross-country skiing, are what make the country the world's happiest. (Matti Ristola photograph)

  • The monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in Helsinki. (Matti Ristola photograph) Matti Ristola photograph

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    A traditional Finnish pastry, korvapuusti, which translates to "slapped ear." (Sandra Lamppu photograph) Sandra Lamppu photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 1/18/2019 10:00:07 PM
Modified: 1/18/2019 10:00:19 PM

Forget the images of winter darkness, a backwoods culture and depressed citizens pickled in aquavit. Finland is green, progressive and currently ranked as the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. The Finnish capital, Helsinki, is a great travel destination for those who want to sample some of that happiness.

Guidebooks will direct the Helsinki visitor to historic Senate Square (think Russian Revolution movie sets), acclaimed Finlandia Hall (classical concerts minus throat clearing and rustling candy wrappers), the abstract Sibelius monument (accompanied by a bust of the famed composer with the biggest stainless steel ear you’re ever likely to see), the bucolic Esplanade (baby strollers and ice cream), or one of the many restaurants known for contemporary Nordic cuisine (try the salmon soup).

These are all worth a visit, but Finnish happiness, onnellisuus, lies elsewhere. I lived in Helsinki for six months from 1999 to 2000 and have made many other visits there. My Finnish friends directed me to the everyday experiences that helped me understand why Finland won the happy prize. Here is a Helsinki itinerary that will let you do the same.

Swim Like a Finn

The city is home to four public indoor swimming halls, and nine others that operate as private-public partnerships. The first public pool, Yrjönkatu, opened in 1928 and still includes alternate days for men and women — bathing suits optional. Admission is 5.50 Euros and visitors can rent a small draped compartment with a bathrobe and cot for relaxing. The pools are very hygienic and well-maintained with clear expectations for bathing etiquette. All public pools have one or more saunas available.

Sauna Like a Finn

Hotel saunas are often populated with foreigners who may not know correct sauna protocol. In public swimming hall saunas, residents will not hesitate to correct you on the rules. First, you must learn to pronounce this iconic Finnish word correctly. It is, “sow’-na” not “sawn-a.”

Begin by showering and leave your bathing suit(!). Pick up a disposable mat for sitting (your DNA is not welcome on the wooden benches). A lower bench will not be as hot and should be your refuge if you encounter the rare unhappy Finn who tries to steam others out by taking charge of the sauna bucket and throwing more water on the rocks than is customary (recommended volume per dose — “as much as a lamb pees”). Sauna steam is called löyly, but don’t bother trying to pronounce it.

Get Sick Like a Finn?

Finland has a universal health care system and delivers high quality primary care, preventive and specialty services. Care is not entirely free, but rates are very low and there is a social security system that covers those unable to pay. Rather than simply walking into the lobby of one of the many hospitals in Helsinki (or having to visit an emergency room) visit the former tuberculosis hospital in Paimio, a small town near Turku. Designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1933, the innovative building became a model for hospital design with its emphasis on light and space. Tours are available.

Travel Like a Finn

A trip to Paimio also offers the opportunity to experience Finnish public transportation. Inter-City trains depart the main station in Helsinki several times daily for the two-hour ride to Turku. A one-hour bus from Turku to Paimio departs several times daily. The 13th-century medieval castle in Turku was built when the country was under Swedish rule and suggests that Finland might not have always been the happiest country in the world.

Learn Like a Finn

The Finnish educational system is ranked as one of the best in the world. The emphasis is on learning rather than testing, so there are no national tests during the period of general education and no tuition fees at any level. Footwear is removed at the door and all students are in socks on very clean floors. Both boys and girls take home economics classes and all students are taught couples dancing. The winter visitor may be surprised to walk by an elementary school or day care center and witness well-bundled children outside at recess while temperatures are well below freezing.

The University of Helsinki invites interested visitors to learn about the Finnish educational system and to visit a primary or secondary school. Both individual and customized group visits are available.

Commute Like a Finn

You’ll see many smiling Finns on two wheels enjoying open air commuting, another reason for their happiness. Helsinki is bike-friendly, with more than 750 miles of cycling routes. Within the city there are designated lanes and intersections with separate stoplights for cars and bicycles. More than 2,500 yellow city bikes are available and the city provides maps of various routes.

A great route runs through Central Park (Keskuspuisto) to the Paloheinä Forest on the outskirts of Helsinki. Although this route crosses several main auto roads that ring the city, there are bicycle bridges over the roads so it is never necessary to cross traffic.

Ski Like a Finn

Finns find it difficult to believe that it costs money in some countries to enjoy a cross-country ski trail through the woods. Helsinki’s environs feature 125 miles of free ski trails. The last stop on bus 66 takes you to Paloheina Recreation Area. Just five miles from the city center, Paloheina has groomed ski loops ranging from a mile to 4½ miles long, and ski rentals are available. The same tracks are used by runners in the summer. There is a sauna, too, of course.

Caffeinate Like a Finn

The most important source of Finnish happiness is their coffee. Finns have the highest rate of coffee consumption in the world, with 12 kg of coffee, per coffee-drinker, per year. Visit a Finnish kahvila and be certain to pair your coffee order with a request for a cinnamon-cardamom pastry known as korvapuusti (“slapped ear”). It’s almost as big as the un-slapped ear on the Sibelius status and will propel your taste buds — and blood sugar — to a happy place.

Rankings for the Happiness Report are based on key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. Although you won’t find these in a museum or restaurant, and you probably can’t stay long enough to affect your life expectancy, a curious and informed traveler can sample the basis for Finnish happiness with this active itinerary.

Some travelers have been so taken by this quiet Nordic Valhalla as to try learning Finnish. Since that’s impossible, it’s best to enjoy your Helsinki experience and come home with a recipe for korvapuusti and plans to build a sauna.

Ford von Reyn is a professor at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and specializes in infectious diseases. He began work with Finnish researchers on a new tuberculosis vaccine in 1990 and lived in downtown Helsinki, near the Temppeliaukio “rock church,” during a research sabbatical. He lives in Thetford.

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