Happiest Country in the World | Searching for the Secret to Finland’s Success

The Finns have it right when it comes to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

by Bre Graham; photos by Joe Gilbert
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Sep 20 2018, 1:06pm

Photo: Joe Gilbert

Any country that has a special word for “staying home and getting drunk in your underwear” ( kalsarikännit) is firstly, somewhere I really want to go, and secondly, a place that obviously prioritises happiness. So it’s not surprising that Finland has topped the 2018 World Happiness Report after years consistently being a feature in the top ten, along with its Nordic neighbours.

Aside from the obvious reasons Finns are seemingly so happy – free school, university, and healthcare, along with being pioneers of gender equality and great design – I feel that there is something unique in their attitude to wellness, and to taking time out from the chaos of modern life. I decided to head to the nation’s capital to find out.

The relaxing outside area of the Löyly Sauna. Photo: Joe Gilbert

“I’m not surprised that Finland came in first this year” says Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute when I quiz him on Finland’s win. “All of the Nordic countries are regularly in the top ten, but Finland does deserve a go this year,” he laughs, as a proud Dane.

“It makes sense because Finns prioritise being in nature. When people spend more time connecting with nature and the land around them they report higher levels of happiness. Health, wellbeing, and happiness – they are all intertwined.”

The sauna’s quaint information board.Photo: Joe Gilbert

The love of nature was obvious as soon as I stepped out of my hotel in Helsinki. But getting outside in summer is something that’s common to all Scandinavian countries. So what was it that put Finland on top this year? Asking locals what makes them unique, there are only two responses – saunas and swims. So I headed to the famous Löyly Sauna in search of an expert. to chat with their sauna specialist.

“Most families have a sauna in their home. Without a doubt, they are the most important thing in Finnish culture,” said Matti Markkanen, the sauna specialist at the Löyly. “Traditionally, it’s where women give birth, and it’s where bodies are washed when you pass away, so there is something beautiful in the cycle of that. They keep you happy.”


A glimpse of the innovative sauna architecture set against the rocks. Photo: Joe Gilbert

Matti gave me a tour of the facilities. Opened on the edge of the sea by actor Jasper Pääkkönen and Antero Vartia, a Member of Parliament, it is one of the only public saunas left in the city. “Most Finns have saunas in their summer homes by the lakes, so Löyly is like the city’s version: it’s open to anyone, so they can have their post-sauna swim in the ocean like they would in their summer home lake.

“It’s such a special feeling to combine the hot and the cold, it gets your blood flowing and wakes up your mind. Sitting in a sauna is a social activity, and brings families and communities together. There are no rules, except no talking about religion or politics.”

The author’s post-sauna view. Photo: Joe Gilbert

It was time to dive in and see for myself if happiness would ensure. So I spent the next two hours alternating between their famous smoke sauna – which flushed my cheeks crimson and completely calmed my mind – and swims in the icy water, which tingled my skin and sent rushes of blood to my brain.

Afterwards, I did as the locals do, and sat out on the gorgeous wooden deck, looking out over the blue Baltic Sea with a cold Lapin Kulta lager, while still smelling faintly of burning birch wood. In the background, Billy Joel played out over the speakers. It was certainly easy to see why a dose of this after work each day would put a smile on your face.

Helsinki locals swimming with one another in the centre of the city. Photo: Joe Gilbert

But for Finns saunas and swimming aren’t just afternoon occupations. The following day I started as many people in the city do with a breakfast of dark rye bread, and a swim in the gorgeous Allas Sea Pools.

There are three, two heated pools, which stay at around 27°, and one ice pool that is kept at the temperature of the Baltic Sea. Housed in the building, there are cafes, bars, and a restaurant, as well as spaces for yoga and of course – a sauna.

As I exited the pool and walked back to my hotel through the Market Square, I felt invigorated, ready for my day and yes, very happy. There’s definitely something about Helsinki and this lifestyle, I reflected. And I hadn’t even needed to try kalsarikännit to appreciate it.

Bre Graham is a freelance journalist based in London. Her trip was organised by Visit Finland. Keep up with her on Twitter.