How a land of melancholic people created the world’s happiest country
Fondly recalling a childhood memory, tour guide Tuula Kleiman describes the good old days when people would paint the soles of their feet with tar. Insisting it was an excellent form of protection, she muses nostalgically about the thick, tacky residue produced by decomposing pine wood, now used to smoke saunas and even flavour food.
Some of the strangest things raise a smile in Finland, a country where misery often blurs with merriment and introversion is an accepted norm. But this nation of offbeat over-thinkers must be onto something, given they’ve recently topped the World Happiness Report for a sixth year in a row.
Ranked according to economic and social factors such as GDP, healthcare and breadth of civil liberties, 137 countries feature in the annual feel-good index sponsored by the UN. Life expectancy, perceptions of corruption and the ability to have a laugh also play a role.
But despite their multiple wins, most Finns are perplexed and amused by the accolade. These are, after all, the same people who head bang to heavy metal and repeatedly balk at the idea of having to share a seat on a public bus.
Melancholic and morose, they revel in pessimism and are frequently plagued by disbelief and self-doubt. Moomin character Too-Ticky speaks for a nation in Tove Jansson’s gloomy Moominland Midwinter when she confesses: “All things are so very uncertain. And that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”
On the surface, Finns are far from being happy campers, so how has a nation famed for frowning managed to end up being the happiest place on Earth?
“There’s something very special about our forests,” claims outdoor enthusiast and fitness coach Lassi Katajarinne, who guides activities in Nuuksio national park, a 35-minute drive from capital city Helsinki. “Whenever I come here, I smile.”
More than 75 per cent of Finland is covered in forests – more than any country in Europe – including areas protected within 41 national parks. From the rush of an owl’s wingbeat to the rustle of autumn leaves underfoot, there’s a soothing soundtrack to every season, accompanied by the obvious health benefits of breathing fresh air, lowering levels of anxiety and boosting moods.
“Walking in the forest significantly improves your physical health and posture,” insists Lassi. “By stepping over logs and uneven surfaces, we shorten our steps, bend our knees and distribute our weight more evenly.”
In the northern reaches of Lapland, long summer days can last for hours, providing an opportunity to top up on mood-enhancing Vitamin D. But even in winter, when the sun barely hovers above the horizon, a combination of glimmering snow cover and electrifying aurora displays keep dark thoughts at bay.
During the Covid lockdowns, Finns made even greater use of their green areas, exercising Jokamiehen oikeudet (Everyman’s Rights) – a freedom to roam and camp in wild spaces, encountering elks, lynx, wolverines and foxes, or foraging for fresh foods.
According to herbalist and biologist Anna Nyman, who can easily identify the 200 edible mushrooms growing in Finland, the wild food movement has allowed people to develop a deeper connection to nature – literally taking them back to their earthy, woodland roots.
Filling her basket with butter-yellow chanterelles and plump, thick-stemmed porcinis, she champions the self-sufficiency earned by “an ability to survive if the food system ever collapsed”.
“I never go to a supermarket,” she proudly claims, emphasizing the value of reviving forgotten skills. “We should never lose the amazing knowledge our grandmothers have given us.”
With approximately 22 million trunks spreading their branches skyward, there are 4,500 trees for every person in Finland’s 5.5 million population. In a country 1.4 times bigger than the UK – but with a twelfth of the human inhabitants – it means there’s plenty of room to move around.
In a place where social distancing was an art form long before Covid, personal space is sacred. The absence of chaotic crowds and noisy traffic immediately puts people in a better mood.
One notable exception, however, is the sauna – a site so culturally significant, it receives more reverence than a church. People gossip, debate and share stories in lakeside cabins, revealing much more than they ever would in everyday life.
As refreshing as an icy water dip, the sense of freedom is energising, explaining why there are more than two million saunas attached to public resorts, summerhouses and private homes.
An ability to switch off is the real key to unlocking happiness, allowing Finns to fine tune a healthy balance between work and play.
Shying away from extremes, they might lack the bravado of boisterous Brazilians or the passion of emphatic Italians. Instead, they’ve subtly struck gold by finding solace in silence and satisfaction in the finer details of life.
“Whoever is happy should hide it,” advised 19th century poet Eino Leino. And so far, humble Finns are doing just that.
Five cheerful ways to experience Finland
Forest bathe in Nuuksio National Park
From families foraging for fresh berries to professional explorers preparing for expeditions to the South Pole, a wide variety of people make use of this accessible patch of wilderness in Espoo. Stay at Haltia Lake Lodge, the only boutique accommodation, with a choice of cosy rooms or glamping tents. Book a tour with mushroom specialist Anna Nyman to hunt for a prized black horn of plenty or the pungent curry scented milkcap. Where The Wild Is (wherethewildis.co.uk; 0117 450 7980) offers a seven-night Helsinki & Luxury Lodge Adventure combining a stay in the city with Nuuksio from £1,350 per person, excluding flights.
Sleep with bears in the Taiga Forest
Although smaller and shyer than their cousins in Canada and Alaska, the European brown bear is still an impressive sight. Find them weaving between larch forests and crisp, coruscating lakes along Finland’s northeast boundary, where hides are strategically placed for the best viewing opportunities. Upgrade a comfort level by staying in new glass-fronted, heated cabins, where it’s possible to watch animals while lying in bed. Go in April for carpets of bunny-tail cotton grass or choose September for autumn colours. Wildlife Worldwide (wildlifeworldwide.com; 01962 302 086) offers a five-day Brown Bears in Style trip from £2,495 per person, including flights.
Make tracks to sauna capital Tampere
The best place to sample traditional sauna culture, Tampere has 50 hot houses open to the public. Dive into lakes from wooden platforms or brave a naked session in the country’s oldest venue Rajaportin, built in 1906. In between sweat sessions, visit the excellent Moomin Museum, housing original illustrations and tableaus by author and artist Tove Jansson, and stop at craft brewery Pyynikin. Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk; 01174 530 059) offers an eight-day Finland’s Golden Triangle tour travelling by train between Helsinki, Tampere and Turku from £975 per person, including flights.
Island-hop in Lakeland
It’s called the land of a thousand lakes, but nearly double that number create a watery wonderland in eastern Finland. Row to pristine, private islands covered in boreal forests, and bask on sun-scorched granite rocks between swims. At Savonlinna, on Lake Saimaa, visit the 15th-century Olavinlinna Castle, and continue to the Art & Design Villas in Anttola to sleep in an eco-lodge built from birch and natural stone. Hike or mountain bike along trails, stopping at Ollinmäki Wine Farm to experiment with berry wines. Best Served Scandinavia (best-served.co.uk; 0207 664 2237) offers an eight-day self-drive Summer Adventure in Finnish Lakeland itinerary from £1,730 per person, including flights.
Camp under the aurora at Lake Inari
High above the Arctic Circle, in an area famed for cloud-free skies, Lake Inari is an excellent location to view the northern lights. Travel early, in autumn, to watch displays dance across the water, combining night-time viewing with daily hikes. During winter months, there’s a chance to go snowmobiling, snowshoeing or sledding with huskies. For a full aurora experience without braving the cold, sleep in bubble tents with clear 360-degree views. Discover The World (discover-the-world.com; 01737 214 250) offers a three-night Nellim Wilderness Adventure from £1,032 per person, excluding flights.