Scandinavia continues to be the world’s happiest region, with Finland, Iceland and Denmark firmly holding on to the top three spots in the World Happiness Report of 2020 – despite the uncertainty of the pandemic. That same year, the Finnish sauna was added to UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list, a sign of how integral the sauna is to almost every Finn’s household.
Is there a correlation between happiness and warmth? Perhaps.
But, on a broader level, Scandinavian happiness is based on more than temperature. It’s a cultural philosophy that values activities that bring a person joy, from being in nature to socializing to taking time to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Originating from rural areas, the sauna has evolved over the years and now you can find a variety of styles, from luxury models to simple wooden structures around the world. However, in Finland, saunas are so prolific that by last count, the country boasts nearly one sauna for every two people. There are communal saunas and even saunas in student dorms, because in Finland and around Scandinavia, these spaces are for socializing. It’s a great way to meet people and make friends.
If you get the opportunity to enjoy a sauna session in Scandinavia, a small, yet important, cultural difference to keep in mind is that locals will most likely be nude. Even among strangers and in mixed genders. If wearing a swimsuit or a towel helps you feel more comfortable, then that is completely acceptable (which is a relief for this shy writer). The most important thing is to relax, socialize, stay hydrated, and revel in that blissful post-sauna feeling.
Living in a busy city, one tends to forget what silence is like or what fresh air can do to your mood. As much as a city person I may be, there is something magical that happens when I’m surrounded by nature. The deeper I walk into a lush forest, the quicker my worries peel away. Not only is this a common practice throughout Scandinavia, but there is a word for it.
Long before the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing became popular, the Norwegians were spending their summers living a “free-air life” with their philosophy of friluftsliv. Put simply, it’s a return to nature. You can experience it by camping, backpacking, or hiking – as long as you get outside.
Although there are significant benefits (which we’ll get to in a second), the focus shouldn’t be on exerting yourself or winning a race or doing better than those in your group. You are doing this to experience the sheer joy and beauty of your surroundings – basically your goal is to enjoy the moment. By doing this you can learn a lot about yourself and your surroundings, as well as connect with the natural environment. This is the true essence of friluftsliv.
Take a Fikapaus
As I began writing this, I hurriedly ran to my kitchen for a cup of coffee that I haphazardly spilled when I pulled it away from the machine before the brew was complete. Oh, the Swedes would be so disappointed in my fikapaus.
The Swedish term fikapaus roughly translates to “coffee break.” But it is nothing like my rushed routine. Their coffee break is a social activity, outside of work. In Sweden, fikapaus is so important that work is often scheduled around these breaks — and not the other way around.
The event consists of coffee, typically accompanied by a sweet treat and can happen more than once a day. This is why Swedes have one of the highest per capita levels of coffee consumption in the world. At its core, fikapaus is more than just having a coffee. It is about catching up with friends, sharing the joy of a short break from the monotony of the day and indulging in something warm and sweet.
Scandinavians are not the only ones on a quest for happiness. We are all in search of greater fulfillment in our relationships, in our careers and our daily life. It so happens that they have words for these aspirations. My favorite being hygge.
Hygge (pronounced HOO-GA) is a Danish and Norwegian word that exemplifies comfort, peace and connection, as well as kinship, nature and simplicity. That’s a lot for a two-syllable word!
It’s about a return to the basics and focusing on what’s important with an emphasis on self-care. Although this tradition was born as a response to Scandinavian winters, it’s a philosophy that can be embraced year-round, no matter where you call home.
For instance, instead of plopping yourself in front of your TV or scrolling endlessly through your phone, create your own self-care ritual that can help you unwind in a more mindful way, like lighting candles, stretching or making yourself herbal tea. Whichever way you choose to hygge, just be sure to surround yourself with good people and an atmosphere that makes you happy. Hygge is less about material things and more about creating a positive experience and energy.
Incorporating these Scandinavian traditions into your daily life will do wonders for your well-being. Plus, you’ll be better prepared for your travels across the region. For even more insight, I recommend the wonderful book The Year of Living Danishly by author Helen Russell, who spent a year experiencing the Scandinavian lifestyle firsthand.