The room is dimly-lit and hazy, with clouds of warm, damp air. Outside, it is early evening and the temperature hovers around -20 degree Celsius. Inside, though it is a sweltering 75. As the sweat pours, I have to remind myself that I’m about 250km within the Arctic Circle in Saariselka in remote northern Finland—in a sauna.
In the shifting translucence of the room, groups of people are scattered, seated on wooden benches that resemble school-ground bleachers. A rectangular podium in the far corner is filled with rocks, the source of the room’s heat. A splash of water from time to time yields an angry hiss, and vapour billows outwards to fill the room. The whispered conversations in Finnish indicate bonhomie, camaraderie and a sense of geniality.
It is tempting to think that saunas might have a big hand in keeping the Finns happy. For the sixth consecutive year, Finland has been named the happiest country in the world in the UN-sponsored World Happiness Report 2023. On the face of it, it seems like an unlikely choice—after all, it’s a cold country with the sun appearing for only a few months of the year. The Finns are surprised too, as they consider themselves stoic and introverted, and are generally not given to displays of emotion. But the happiness index is not just about what people feel but the overall quality of life. And in this, the Finns are clearly at the top.
Finns love their sayings. It could be self-deprecatory—‘An introverted Finn looks at their shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at yours.’ Or philosophical: ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’ At some point during a conversation with a Finn, they are more likely than not to say, ‘There is a saying in Finland…’ and proceed to display a subtle awareness and acknowledgement of everything around. Perhaps the most telling is this one: ‘Being born in Finland is like winning the jackpot.’
This possibly explains their position on the index, since the report, in its 10th year, is based on a number of social and economic factors as well people’s own assessment of their happiness. It’s a bouquet of factors: Finland has masses of forests, lakes and wilderness, governed by The Everyman’s Rights, where everyone is free to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. It is among the countries with the cleanest air. Its public services run smoothly and are reliable. Its education system is among the best. It has excellent healthcare and social security. Crime and corruption levels are low. It has a strong social support system and believes in equality. All this has led to ‘earned trust between the government and the public’.
And then there is the concept of ‘sisu,’ a Finnish word that loosely translates to grit but encompasses strength, resilience and stoicism. It is an important part of the Finnish identity which puts great emphasis on patience and quiet courage, especially in the face of adversity. More so in a country where winter lasts for months in parts and where daylight is premium.
I get to see some of this ‘sisu’ in Saariselka in the heart of the Finnish Lapland, the land of the indigenous Sami. Everything is shrouded in snow and the white wilderness is both beautiful and scary. Snowmobiles and reindeer are the only form of transport and the snowscape feels hostile. Lives and livelihoods are challenging. And yet, hot soup and smoked reindeer meat are readily dished up and lilting folk songs fill the air. In the eerie twilight, which lasts for a few hours before complete darkness falls, there is fun to be had via snowshoeing, sledding and tobogganing.
But nothing feels more welcome than the sauna, where the toasty temperature is a welcome relief from the sub-zero one outside. The sauna features at the top of almost any list of reasons for the Finns’ happiness. I recall reading that the word and the concept is Finnish in origin, and could have possibly originated more than 2,000 years ago, but the first written mention dates back to CE 1112. And it is widely popular activity. So much so that it is believed there are over 3 million saunas for a population of just over 5 million.
As I sweat it out, a kindly Finn strikes up a conversation. To my luck, Miko is a repository of sauna information. Most houses in the old days, he says, had a sauna built in, something that continues but is not ubiquitous. And then: “There is a Finnish saying, ‘Build the sauna, then the house’.”
He goes on to add that a sauna session is an integral part of Finnish culture, to cleanse body and soul. But it also about a sense of belonging, of community, “just like pubbing and hanging out with friends,” he says. That probably explains why 95% of Finns, according to local reports, go to the sauna at least once a week. It is this centrality in the Finnish scheme of things that has prompted the Finnish sauna culture’s entry into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Predictably, it has led to much deeper examination and there are several studies that link the regular use of saunas to a variety of benefits, including better sleep, improved immune system, lower risk of hypertension, heart disease, depression and even dementia.
I also learn than traditional saunas are built in wood with wooden benches. The saunas are considered sacred by the Finns, but the most sacrosanct thing is silence. If you must talk, whisper.
I also learn that the steam generated inside a sauna has a specific name – loyly – a bit of a tongue-twister and a word not used in any other context. But as the next hiss emanates from the hot rocks and fresh heat spreads through the room, all the information fades away. Instead, I hear more whispers directed at me with suggestions, recommendations, questions...For a moment I feel part of the community. Maybe happiness will follow.