It’s July. You’re in a kayak gliding through serene water off the Finnish coast, on your way to visit a sauna, pick berries, and sleep in a tent. At your side is a “happiness guide,” one of a small group of Finns recruited by a national tourism agency to teach international visitors something about why the Scandinavian country ranks at the top of a report ranking nations on happiness.
“One of the uniquely Finnish experiences which contributes to our well-being is our special relationship with nature, especially our forests,” says Hetta Huittinen, a spokesperson for Business Finland, which launched Rent A Finn, a new contest that will bring travelers to Finland this summer for a free trip with a Finnish guide. The guide include Hanna–a marketing professional who plans to take visitors to her grandmother’s house by a lake to hike and bake Finnish pastries–and Esko, who will host visitors at a summer cottage on the edge of the Arctic Circle (in Rovaniemi, which claims to be the hometown of Santa Claus). “Studies have shown that spending time in nature can relieve stress, hence the concept of a Finnish ‘happiness guide,’ who can showcase to our visitors how Finns experience nature to relieve stress.”‘
Even in the urban bustle of Helsinki, a national park is a short ride away on public transportation. “You don’t have to go far from Helsinki to just enjoy silent, beautiful nature,” says Juho Juutilainen, an entrepreneur who is serving as one of the guides for the program. “You just go one bus ride or train ride and you’re in the middle of nowhere.” Juutilainen plans to take visitors to the park, as well as to a rocky archipelago nearby. Each night, they’ll experience a sauna–including, in one case, a sauna built inside a tent using stones and wood from the seashore. Saunas are closely tied to how Finnish people experience nature, he says, and an important way that Finns relax.
In Finnish law, as in other Scandinavian countries, the public has the right to jokamiehenoikeus, or the freedom to roam; in natural areas, even on privately owned land, it’s legal for anyone to make temporary use of the land. “There are no fences at all,” says Juutilainen. “You’re allowed to go anywhere and pick berries and mushrooms or whatever you find there, or even stay overnight in a tent without asking permission.” Most Finns also spend long stretches of time outside in the summer as they rent or borrow cottages in the countryside; the law requires a minimum of five weeks of annual leave (U.S. law does not mandate vacation), and it’s not uncommon to take off four weeks in the summer.
If Finns are happier than citizens of other countries–as the recently released World Happiness Report 2019 found–spending time outside is only one factor. The index, which looks at answers to a global Gallup survey, points to a number of key reasons why someone living in one country might be more satisfied with their life than in another, including life expectancy, income per capita, social support, whether someone feels like they have freedom to make life choices, and levels of generosity and trust in a society. (To be clear, the report doesn’t measure happiness in the moment–Finns rank 41st in terms of everyday emotional state, and rise to the top only in the broader sense of whether they are happy with their lives.)
Finland is known for its top-ranked public schools, cheap universal daycare, long paid paternity leave, and multiple other programs and policies that improve quality of life. It ranks high on gender equality and low on income inequality. Helsinki has short commutes and is trying to make it easier to live without a car. But health and well-being are one part of the overall picture, says John Helliwell, one of the authors of the World Happiness Report. Next year’s report will include a chapter that focuses on how the environment around people influences their happiness. “People actually are both happier and healthier when they see trees when they’re walking to work,” he says, adding that the slow pace of walking and connecting with others also has a benefit. “It has implications for how you design cities.” Health and a sense of work-life balance seem to be innate in the culture: When I first tried to contact someone for this article, he couldn’t talk because he was headed to the sauna.
It might be difficult for visitors to glean much wisdom from a two- or three-day trip, but Business Finland hopes that the winners chosen to travel will learn something by diving into nature with a Finn. “Love of nature and an appreciation for slow living are key contributors to Finnish happiness,” says Huittinen. “Pure nature is a part of life in Finland. We go outdoors in any weather, let our babies nap outside, and spend a great deal of time in nature in general.”