Finnish Saunas : The Happiest Place?

Finland has again been voted happiest country on earth, and if the tourism people are right, they reckon having saunas is a key reason. By Mallika Naguran.


Helsinki, April 2 2019. In the latest World Happiness Report (WHR), the wild and chilly nation of Finland was again voted the happiest country on earth – and has consistently been among the top ten happiest places for the last seven years. Comparatively, America rated a doldrum-scraping 19th overall (with a gloomy 61st place for perception of freedom), five places down on its 2017 ranking. So if it’s not cheap smartphones, massive burgers and a toupe’d president that makes people happy, what is it?

According to the “This is Finland” website, saunas are a “deliciously relaxing experience,” which also “provide a vital insight into the (obviously happy) culture and mentality of your Finnish hosts.” And with around two million saunas – that’s a sauna for every 2.5 Finnish people – the country definitely spends a lot of time happily sweating, given it’s half inside the Arctic Circle.

It’s wood all the way for the majority of Finnish saunas. Courtesy VisitFinland.

It’s wood all the way for the majority of Finnish saunas. Courtesy VisitFinland.

Most Finnish saunas are quaint little huts near the family house or cabin, heated by a woodstove, and with an all-wood interior. Any exposed metal and you could get an embarrassing burn. Operation is simple; light the fire with birch wood, let the temperature soar, shut the door tight then throw some clean lake water on the hot rocks stacked around the stove. The interior fills with red-hot steamy air and the occupants fill with happiness. Easy. And perfect for our stress-ridden contemporary lifestyles.

“We are living a moment of transition to a new age and this generates a sense of uncertainty,” said Andrea Illy, one of the sponsors of the WHR. “Social happiness is therefore even more relevant, in order to give a positive perspective and outlook for the present and for the future.” And yes, that’s what the Finns claim for the sauna. No envious looking at those new sunglasses, that expensive watch or fancy shoes – it all comes off in the sauna and it’s just you, your conversation and your nudity.

“The world is a rapidly changing place,” adds Professor John Helliwell, co-editor of the 2019 WHR. “How communities interact with each other whether in schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods or on social media has profound effects on (their) happiness.” And in the sauna too, apparently.

In contrast, the steady pace of sauna culture as part of the Finnish psyche for centuries has kept Finns on the straight and level for generations. Not so long ago, saunas were commonly used as a birthing chamber for women. And they are recognised as healthy places for the older body too. As the heat spreads through the closed room your pores open up and you sweat profusely, allowing built-up wastes and toxins to flush out. Unlike cosmetic cleansers, lotions, and soap which can clog your pores.

The heat from a sauna also helps you get rid of the outer layer of dead skin cells, making you look and feel younger and infinitely more Nordic. The high temperature makes your pulse rate jump by up to 25% over normal, oxygenating your skin and tissues.

Saunas are not about sex - official. Courtesy VisitFinland.

Saunas are not about sex - official. Courtesy VisitFinland.

The only potential downside is that you can lose up to a half a litre of sweat during a sauna session. Drink too little and you could faint, and fainting in a sauna is very bad form. You can take the sensible approach and drink lots of water, or the Happy Finnish approach and drink lots of beer as you bake. Your choice.

Although the Finns are very happy, they are also very orderly, so they have put together a ten-part list to achieving a mellow first-time sauna experience. Useful pointers include not participating if you have open wounds or heart problems, but the overall advice is go for it.

Other tips include noting that “Finnish sauna has nothing to do with sex.” They say that suggesting it “may not score points with Finns.” Remeber that one as you swill down your seventh re-hydrating beer. They emphasise that saunas are a place for physical and mental cleansing, and some suggest you should behave in a sauna as you would in church.

And although most of us wouldn’t go to church naked, they say that “Yes, Finns go to sauna in the nude even with strangers. But don’t worry – they’ve seen their fair share of naked human bodies and it’s only natural, and there’s no shame in being you.”  That’s reassuring, too. No wonder they are happy.

As the Finnish tourism folks put it, “the most important thing is to relax, socialise, have a couple of drinks and enjoy the blissful post-sauna feeling of having cleaned both your body and your mind.”

Where are my birch twigs? I’m leaving the phone off, too . . . Courtesy VisitFinland.

Where are my birch twigs? I’m leaving the phone off, too . . . Courtesy VisitFinland.

That’s something of a contrast with the issues besetting the US at the moment, according to Prof. Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, who contributed to the WHR. “In short, adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on … other activities (presumably including sauna) are happier,” she notes.

Maybe the Finns, who invented Nokia and the mobile phone as we know it, have already moved on from what Prof. Twenge calls a “less-happy iGen adolescent” culture and to one that allows whole families to still enjoy the uncluttered release of the hot, steamy, naked wood cabin.

“There is the possibility that iGen adolescents are less happy because their increased time on digital media has displaced time that previous generations spent on non-screen activities linked to happiness,” she suggests.

That’s it then – dacks down and into the steam room! Time to get happy!