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What it's like to live in Finland, the happiest country in the world

INSIDER logo INSIDER 3/31/2021 insider@insider.com (Theresa Christine)
a group of people standing in front of a building: Helsinki is Finland's capital. Ojimorena / iStock © Ojimorena / iStock Helsinki is Finland's capital. Ojimorena / iStock

For the fourth year in a row, Finland topped the list of the World Happiness Report.

If this is surprising to you - after all, Finland is known for its brutally cold winters and limited daylight - know that some of the people of Finland are just as amazed.

"Finland is not an overtly happy-go-lucky or worry-free place," said Tom Lippo, founder of Fact Law, a law firm with offices in Finland and the US. "Finns are reserved. For example, the Finnish language has a common phrase that's loosely translated as 'one who smiles for no good reason,' and that is not a compliment. So Finns have been shocked to learn that they are so happy!"

The annual survey from Gallup looks at six key factors: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and corruption levels. Finland scores well in all of these categories, although it does particularly well with the generosity factor.

The study has a lot of people wondering what it is that gives Finns such a positive outlook and what life is really like in the Land of the Thousand Lakes.

I visited Finland and spoke with the people there to see what it's like to live in the world's happiest country.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2019.

Parents love that their children can get an excellent education in Finland

a group of people sitting on a motorcycle: Teachers are well-regarded in Finland. Courtesy Theresa Christine © Courtesy Theresa Christine Teachers are well-regarded in Finland. Courtesy Theresa Christine

Just like with the World Happiness Report, the education system in Finland has repeated success in national rankings, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Additionally, people highly regard anyone working as a teacher - including the country itself, who ensures teachers get top-notch training and excellent pay, according to The Guardian.

Jonathan, a taxi driver from the United Kingdom, relocated to Finland after he met his wife there. Although he eventually plans to return to the UK, he told Insider the top reason for staying is because he wants his children to go to school in Finland and get the best education possible.

Sami Hero, the chief operating officer of HappyOrNot, a Finnish company that makes customer satisfaction measurement terminals, lives in Tampere, Finland, explained that the education is meritocracy-based, which encourages students at a young age to work hard.

"When people graduate from a program like med school, they don't have debilitating debts. At the same time, even high school is meritocracy based," Hero told Insider.

He continued, "After 9th grade you have apply to high school and the acceptance is based on your GPA and sometimes they have exams similar to universities. This early triage helps kids formulate their future path pretty early and they learn early on the hard work necessary to reach goals, and also how it feels to fail or miss your goals."

Finland was ranked the most literate nation in 2016, and the Finns love their libraries

a close up of a train station: Oodi Helsinki Central Library is a popular spot. Shutterstock © Shutterstock Oodi Helsinki Central Library is a popular spot. Shutterstock

One thing was for sure - it didn't matter at all that I could speak zero words of the Finnish language.

In Finland, many people speak English, as well as Swedish. And both Finnish and Swedish are official languages taught in schools, as Finland is officially a bilingual country.

"Quite a large percentage of Finns speak more than two foreign languages. They also travel quite a bit for vacations so they are exposed to other cultures," Hero said.

Many Finnish people also grow up going to the library.

"The library is a major part of life for the people here," Hanna-Leena Halsas, a tour guide in Finland, told Insider. "They might do schoolwork there or their hobbies. It's a safe environment."

Perhaps the best example of this in practice is the Oodi Helsinki Central Library, which opened in 2018.

The bright, open space is a mishmash of a lot of different areas, from books and desks to audio recording booths and sewing stations.

It was built to be a work space, but also a living room for the people of Helsinki, and when I visited it was filled with people enjoying the area.

Finland is also an incredibly safe country

a large ship in a body of water: Helsinki, Finland, is said to be quite safe. njus05/Shutterstock © njus05/Shutterstock Helsinki, Finland, is said to be quite safe. njus05/Shutterstock

"It's a good place to raise a family," the taxi driver Jonathan said, explaining that he never worries when his young kid cycles around the neighborhood alone.

Of course, in any city there's going to be some level of crime, but even in the capital city of Helsinki there are no major safety issues, according to TripSavvy.

Once you get to the more rural areas of the country, crime is almost nonexistent: Finland was named the safest country in the world according to a 2017 World Economic Forum report.

"According to the 2019 Travel Risk Map, which assesses the world across three categories - medical risks, security, and road safety - Finland has the lowest overall threat level," according to The Telegraph.

Universal health care is a given in Finland

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: The Finnish flag is white and blue. Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/Reuters © Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/Reuters The Finnish flag is white and blue. Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/Reuters

"Universal health care is seen by Finns as 'the right things to do' as a moral issue, with the underlying economics as a secondary issue. Debate about it is ongoing, but the focus is mostly on how to achieve goals rather than how to eliminate it, or whether such benefits are deserved by those who use them," Lippo said.

Merja Herrala, who does marketing and communications for Visit Finland, grew up in Lahti and is now based in Helsinki. She said that not having to worry about potential medical bills relieves a lot of stress for the Finnish people.

"It's wonderful that when you get injured or sick, you go to the hospital and you know you will get good treatment, but it won't cost you a fortune," she explained.

Finns are big on getting outside and exploring nature

a group of people that are standing in the snow: You can see the Northern Lights in Finland. Tsuguliev/ Shutterstock © Tsuguliev/ Shutterstock You can see the Northern Lights in Finland. Tsuguliev/ Shutterstock

The people of Finland love exploring the outdoors, from their 40 national parks to the islands of the Baltic Sea to northernmost Lapland. It's no wonder the population loves to go hiking or biking - the Finnish landscape is spectacular.

"The country is sparsely populated on average, which means there is a lot of nature to enjoy and even private lands are accessible to everyone as long as you don't go to someone's backyard to pick up mushrooms and berries," Hero said.

Even in the cities, though, it's possible to stay in touch with the outdoors.

"I love the open spaces in the cities and the well-maintained walking, trekking, and biking paths that make exercise very accessible," Hero added.

Finland is a winter wonderland

a group of people cross country skiing on a snow covered slope: Cross-country skiing is popular in Finland. Tanhu / Shutterstock © Tanhu / Shutterstock Cross-country skiing is popular in Finland. Tanhu / Shutterstock

The cold-averse like myself may find it difficult to believe, but the Finns love their home in winter just as much - if not more - than during the summer.

Hero explained that life in the chilly months doesn't change too much from summertime. Instead, Finns adjust to the cold and still get around on bicycles. To them, winter just means added activities, such as ice skating, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding.

"You learn to live with the seasons," Halsas said.

Lapland remains a popular destination during the winter, and all the snow makes it a perfect destination for skiing or snowboarding.

Plus the chances of seeing the Northern Lights are high - in Lapland they can grace the sky dozens of nights a year.

Finns love their saunas, which are proven to increase immunity and well-being

a person sitting on a dock next to a body of water: A dip after enjoying the Löyly sauna. Courtesy of Theresa Christine © Courtesy of Theresa Christine A dip after enjoying the Löyly sauna. Courtesy of Theresa Christine

"Be careful," Halsas warned me before I made my way to Löyly sauna in Helsinki. "It's addictive."

I laughed this off, of course, but after one jump from the steamy sauna to freezing cold water outside, a Finnish tradition, I had to do it again and again.

Finns love their saunas, and pretty much every home or apartment complex will have one. Finland has a population of about 5.5 million people, and it's estimated that there are well over 2 million saunas in the country.

"Pretty much every house has a sauna, and there are more saunas than cars here," Päivyt Tallqvist, senior vice president of corporate communications at Finnair said. "In the summertime, I go every day."

Sauna usage has been linked to improved heart health, better immune system function, fewer blood pressure problems, and more, according to a Mayo Clinic review summary.

But the best reason to go? It just feels good.

You sit in a room sweating profusely as a plump Finnish man tosses water onto a pile of hot rocks, and just when you don't think you can take it anymore, you dunk your body up to your neck in freezing cold water. While this might not sound appealing, it feels blissful.

Finland's New Nordic cuisine is impressive

a plate of food with a green plant: New Nordic cuisine is more than fish and potatoes. Courtesy of Theresa Christina © Courtesy of Theresa Christina New Nordic cuisine is more than fish and potatoes. Courtesy of Theresa Christina

If you think that Finns rely on fish and potatoes alone, you're in for a big surprise.

"The restaurant scene has grown in the past 20 years," Herrala said. "We've always had a lot of Chinese, Indian, and Nepalese food, and now you can also get Thai, Mexican, and Japanese. But the most popular trend now is New Nordic."

New Nordic food uses local ingredients and relies heavily on seasonality, incorporating berries, herbs, and wild vegetables.

Finns firmly believe in honesty

a group of people smiling for the camera: In Finland, honesty is huge. Brian Bahr/Getty Images © Brian Bahr/Getty Images In Finland, honesty is huge. Brian Bahr/Getty Images

"If you ask a Finn 'How's it going?' be ready to receive an honest answer, and be prepared to listen. It took me a while to tone down the American pleasantries that don't really mean anything.

"People are really earnest," Hero said.

When I talked to people in Finland, they seemed completely engaged and present, and spoke in a friendly yet straightforward manner. There's no "fluff" around what they say, and small talk is definitely not their forte.

But what they do say, they mean - and for that, they earn their reputation for being genuine and authentic.

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