Saunas, Safety, and Salmiakki: The “Happiest” people in the world?

Happiest” people in the world?  I came to see for myself.  I left it all behind for a while to experience life in a country where people trust each other, healthcare is a constitutional right, and you can drink the tap water.

Welcome to Finland

With my Finnish residence permit and U.S. paper vaccine card, I landed at Helsinki Airport, a marvel of 21st-century infrastructure, with clean toilets that have piped-in sound of chirping birds.  As an American traveling in a pandemic, it was a nervous moment of waiting while the border control officer surveyed my documents.  He looked up and down at this guy from a country that recently had a violent insurrection.  After a slight pause, he said “Welcome to Finland.”

Finland is a social-welfare democracy with a largely capitalist economy, strong government regulation, and joint public-private ownership of key industries, such as Finnair.  This does not mean socialist, as in North Korea, as some U.S. politicians would like their voters to think whenever the topics of, say universal healthcare or subsidized pre-school comes up.  It means the person with the most votes wins the election and taxes are investments in quality education, transportation, preschool, universal healthcare, help with aging parents, and retirement pensions.  “Medical bankruptcy” is not a thing here.

My friend, Jukka, from the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki, moved to the U.S. 30 years ago and debunks the notion that Finns are “happy.”  It’s not that they are gleeful at their freedom, safety, and security.  It’s that reasonable expectations are met, and therefore they are generally satisfied with their lives, lived mostly in tiny apartments.


Not so secret weapons

As a temporary resident however, the Kaurismäki-like bureaucracy associated with tasks like setting up a bank account and phone service are challenging.  Getting access to the system can be difficult for foreigners working here.  I was turned away at two banks before opening an account at a third.  To get a bank account, I needed to call a special number that can only be dialed from a Finnish phone number.  In order to get the phone plan, I needed the bank account.  Want to receive a package at the post office?  Good luck.  You will need the bank account to do that.  You get the picture.  The bureaucracy and difficult to learn language are their not-so-secret weapons for trying to keep this place to themselves.

Despite Finns’ reputation for being reserved and not inclined towards small talk, I made many new friends and had sweaty and naked conversations with them in their most important of places—the sauna.   There are many other unique cultural features here, such as the hand-held ‘personal showers’ in public toilets.  Does anyone actually use them?  I’m not sure, but the skill required is probably formidable.  Like the taste of licorice with the salty, burning sensation of ammonium chloride?  It’s what they call salmiakki.  It’s in everything from ice-cream to condoms.

Safe, functional and free

On the other hand, you can traverse the city and not see one homelessness encampment.  It is also striking to see very young children making their way around on ubiquitous and clean buses, trains, and trams without ‘helicoptering’ parents.  That is the kind of “freedom” I admire.  The civic trust, safety, and functionality of Finnish society allows kids to become independent.  They are not tied to their parents’ health insurance until age 26.  They have their own.  After all, you can’t live in your parent’s basement when they don’t have one.

Sure, it’s cold and dark in the winter here, they have a perplexing form of baseball, and girls compete in a ‘hobby horse’ riding sport that seems straight out of Monty Python.  However, strolling about this beautiful city, I see people that go to sleep in their tiny apartments, not worrying about how they will pay for healthcare, their kid’s college, or whether they will have a roof over their heads if they lose their job.  Too many people in the U.S. can’t do that.  It breaks my heart, because I have seen what is possible.


Fred Markowitz is Professor of Sociology at Northern Illinois University and a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Helsinki Institute for Criminology and Legal Policy

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