Lessons from Finland, the world’s happiest people – Senior Director Visit Finland, Kristiina Hietasaari 

Finland has topped the list of the world’s happiest countries on earth for the past six years.  That is according to the 2023 World Happiness Report. This always comes as a surprise to South Africans as we consider plenty of sunshine and our friendly people to be the key ingredients of happiness. In contrast, Finland has long dark winters, in Lapland daylight is restricted to a few hours in winter and temperatures can drop to -50C. So, apart from their love of the outdoors, which South Africans share – what is their secret ingredient for happiness? Senior Director at Visit Finland told BizNews why the Finns are so content, how happiness is becoming an export product and why they don’t mind paying tax. In case you wonder, it is not because Santa Claus lives there. – Linda van Tilburg


The Finns are not cheerful all the time, but they don’t like to complain 

Well, the happiness report is not measuring or ranking countries on how happy they feel all the time. It doesn’t mean that we would be very cheerful all the time, but it’s more that we are content, we are satisfied with our lives. I think that the degree of satisfaction is very high in Finland because we are relatively happy or satisfied with our lives. If you would ask a Finn whether she’s happy, she would probably say yes, even though she would have the most miserable day. But it’s more like being happy or satisfied with everything you have in your life and if everything is okay, then you are supposed to be happy because you don’t have anything serious to complain about. 

I think that happiness is based very strongly on different factors related to our society, but of course also the nature of Finnish people. It’s probably not something that only we have, it’s something that everybody has. It’s a combination of many factors like policy, societal stability and quality of life that is extremely important and very strong in Finnish society. Freedom, freedom of speech, of course, attitudes and skills and also the deep connection with nature that we have and a very down-to-earth way of life. 

The Finns don’t mind paying tax

We feel that it’s very important and very good that we are collecting taxes for the good of the whole society, not just for us. Myself, for example, I managed to break my wrist two weeks ago, and even though I could have afforded to go to a private occupational health care provider, I chose to go to my hometown public hospital and the service was just excellent. So, I don’t have any reason to complain about all those services that are open to everybody. I do think that it’s pretty much the same in other Nordic countries as well.

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Not ‘crying for the moon’  and finding peace of mind in every day, small things

It is about finding balance, because I think that’s the real essence of our happiness. We are generally very modest and very down to earth and we are happy with the small things in life. So, we are not crying for the moon, but instead, we find peace of mind in everyday small things. I think that’s the key and we are not aiming time for something bigger all the time. 

I think it must surely be very stressful if you need to strive for perfection all the time. How can anybody be happy if you always keep on wanting more or wanting something better? So, understanding what is good enough, I think is the key to happiness and independence. Like most people, they do belong to the middle class. So surely, it’s vital for happiness that you are not suffering from poverty. But if you are just wealthy enough to get your everyday necessities and buy something extra on top of that, I think it’s good enough for the majority. 

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The importance of nature, forests and ice baths 

Well, of course, we have the forest air. So, it’s not just going outside, but it’s enjoying the forest with very fresh air. Considering climate change and the too-high temperatures that people are suffering from, also in Europe nowadays, we still have very fresh air. It’s really an advantage, of course, that we’re pretty much enjoying life but, I would just say that being close to nature is one of the key elements because you are never far from nature in Finland, even if you live in the middle of Helsinki, just around the corner, you can find nature. So, it’s a very low threshold. It’s very easy to find nature in Finland and be surrounded by it.

I’m not going to swim in an ice hole, though. I know that many of my friends do, and they say that it’s something extra, that you feel so relaxed and so happy after you’ve done that. But you don’t have to be that extreme.. But just being around in nature, I think that this is very important because we know that even a short stay outside or in nature lowers your blood pressure and calms down your heartbeat. So, there are very direct good effects that it has on your health and well-being. Just going out, hugging a tree, watching the beautiful scenery by the seashore or lakes  – you can just inhale the beauty of nature. One of the very important elements of being in nature is to understand that we are only a small part of it. Sometimes I feel that many people just think about themselves as being the centre of the universe and everything is surrounded by your well-being. But if you are in nature, you understand how small you are and how you are just part of everything else. I think that is very healthy. 

Master classes in Finnish happiness

I think it’s a very nice campaign idea that we came up with. We have already been selected as the happiest country in the world six years in a row. So, we have been using this key content in our campaigning. But now we have decided that we are going to invite ten people from around the world to come to Finland in June to the most beautiful resort in the Lakeland area, and we are offering them this holiday within Finnish nature and there will be eight different coaches or trainers who will teach them all these skills that we have. What makes us happy? They are all related to being in nature and finding your well-being in nature, Finnish food and different kinds of activities.

We haven’t decided yet on whether we will continue the programme, but an online version will be available to everybody in August. 

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A balance between work and free time… and a sauna

I think that one of the key assets that we have is that we know how to combine or balance work life with free time. This is something at least that is very often raised by people who have moved from other countries to work here, that it’s the balance between your work life and free time that is good here. We are not working all day long but we can separate free time from business hours. Of course, many find business life very stressful but I think that we are rather good at finding remedies against stress. Nature, as I said already many times, it’s one of the major sources of well-being for us but maybe another asset is a sauna. There’s hardly any kind of worry that would not be dissipated in a sauna.