Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Why Finland Is So Happy With Heli Mende
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 414 of Live Happy Now. We’ve been talking about Finland being the world’s happiest country for several years. But this week, we’re getting an insider’s view on why it’s so happy.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I am sitting down with Heli Mende of Visit Finland. She talks about how the country is embracing being named the happiest country in the world for six years in a row. That designation has inspired them to offer a happiness master class, and also has helped Finns realize and appreciate some of the things they had taken for granted. Heli talks to us about happiness, Finland style, including the value of connecting with nature, and importantly, the role that saunas play in the country’s overall well-being. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:49] PF: Heli, thank you for joining me on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:52] HM: Thank you for having me.
[00:00:54] PF: I’m so excited to talk to you because we at Live Happy have been talking about Finland for years and, honestly, from the beginning of our existence. So it’s so wonderful to be able to talk to someone about happiness and Finland. Why don’t you start by telling us what your position is?
[00:01:10] HM: Yes, of course. So I’m working for Visit Finland, which is the National Tourist Board of Finland, and I’m based in New York City. So my responsibility is to promote Finland here in North America.
[00:01:22] PF: Well, I think the happiest country in the world makes it a lot easier to promote it.
[00:01:26] HM: Yes. It certainly has been helping my job. So every year, we have been waiting to see the ranking. Now, for six years, we have been the happiest country in the world. So it is quite amazing, I have to say.
[00:01:39] PF: It’s so interesting because at Live Happy, when we talk about happiness, we’re not talking about that euphoric jump up and down kind of happiness. We’re talking about overall well-being and a content lifestyle. Would you say that that’s what you have in Finland? Or how do you define happiness in Finland?
[00:01:56] HM: I would definitely, and I think all my fellow citizens agree with me when I say this. The happiness for us is about being content with your lives, so contentment about your everyday life, about the fundamentals in your own country, about the importance of nature, how we see that as part of our happiness. Those things are. We’re quite down-to-earth people in Finland.
[00:02:19] PF: Yes. All the Nordic countries do well. Is there a similarity in how you live and how you think that is making those countries all rank so high every year?
[00:02:31] HM: Yes. There definitely are lots of similarities between the Nordic countries, and our societies are very similar as well. We have the similar basic fundamentals in place, I mean, in the universal healthcare. Good education system is free for everybody. Low corruption rates and very low numbers of homelessness, for example. So those things are very similar in all the Nordic countries. Of course, Finland has been ranking best in all those indexes now for the past years.
[00:02:58] PF: Is there a rivalry between the country? So you go to Sweden and say, “Hey, look. We beat you again.” Or how does that work?
[00:03:05] HM: I don’t think we really rival about the happiness. I think the rivalry with Sweden is about ice hockey. That’s where it gets quite intense.
[00:03:15] PF: Yes. It’s probably best to keep it that way, I guess. You don’t want to fight over happiness.
[00:03:18] HM: No.
[00:03:19] PF: So with the countries being so similar, what is it that you think makes Finland keep coming out on top every year?
[00:03:26] HM: That is a really good question. I think we Finns are kind of baffled even about this title. Especially during the first couple of years, we’re like, “What, seriously? I mean, if we are the happiest, how bad are the other guys doing? Can this be true?”
Now, I think after six years, we have sort of learned to believe the results. But we’re still kind of trying to contemplate why and what makes us the happiest country in the world. The report is ranking the countries based on certain indexes like said earlier Finland is doing really well in all those indexes. So we just happen to be the best in those.
Then they also base the ranking on interviews of the citizens of each of the countries. It seems like also Finnish people are really, really content what they have in our country. So, yes, I can’t really tell you any one specific thing. Maybe there are a couple of things that could make the difference.
First of all, we have this really, really close relationship with nature, which I know that also the Nordic fellow citizens share. But for us since, it is such a big part of our lifestyle that is so rooted in our thinking. That might be something that we are even more extreme in Finland than in other Nordic countries. I’m not sure. Then we, of course, have the Finnish sauna.
[00:04:50] PF: Oh, the saunas. How big of a role does that play in happiness do you think?
[00:04:54] HM: I think it’s something that we really take for granted. All of these elements of the Finnish happiness or the indexes that we are ranked by, we take them for granted. So I think during these years when we’ve been selected as the number one, we have been having to start to think, “Okay, what is the meaning of these? And are these things something that we actually can’t take for granted, and some other people in the world don’t have?” It’s actually good that we have to think about these things.
But sauna is one of those things that we did definitely take for granted, and it is a big part of our lifestyle still, even though it dates back thousands of years ago because our forefathers actually invented the saunas just for practical reasons. They started to build this earth pits that they heated, and those were the warm places to wash themselves in the winter year or months because it was very, very cold, of course. It still is cold in the wintertime.
Then evolved into these small huts. First ones were the saunas without any chimneys. They were called smoke saunas. Then came the next version with the chimney with heated stoves and then the electrical. So we have all those still available in Finland. In a country of five and a half million people, we have about three million saunas, which is more than passenger cars. So, yes, I would say that it plays a really big part of our life.
[00:06:12] PF: Oh, that’s interesting. So how is this sauna used now in Finland?
[00:06:17] HM: It’s used like it has always been used. I’m based in New York City. But I also have an apartment in Helsinki, where I usually spent my summers, and I have a small sauna in my apartment. So basically, everybody has a sauna in their apartment, in their house, or in their summer house, or both. Hotels all have saunas. Now, we have hotel rooms also with saunas. So there are many ways.
Then there are these big saunas for social gatherings. So you can have it as take a sauna as sort of part of your social life. Go for sauna with people you know or with people you don’t know in these public saunas. Or you can have your own private sauna, relaxing sauna experience. For me, sauna is part of my relaxation routine and part of recharging myself. I love having my own private sauna moment. I feel that it helps me relieve the stress.
[00:07:08] PF: When also it’s one of those things. You can’t really be doing a lot of other things at the same time. So it plays into all these other things that lead to contentment, which is slowing your mind down, having some time to decompress and exhale, and just really taking time for yourself.
[00:07:24] HM: Yes, exactly. That’s very, very much so.
[00:07:27] PF: So one of the big reasons I’m talking to you today is after being named happiest country for the sixth year in a row, Finland came up with a fantastic campaign. That is that you’re going to offer a happiness master class. I wanted to know how this idea came about. Did you have it in the works before being named the happiest country again, or what’s the backstory on doing this?
[00:07:50] HM: Actually, before the pandemic, we were thinking about doing something similar, not exactly with this concept. But then pandemic came and then, obviously, it was something that we wanted to postpone and see when the world is in a better place again. Now, we thought that this is the time. Then we were nominated again as the happiest country in the world. So the timing was actually really good.
But it has not been easy for anybody, I think, during the past years because of the pandemic and many other things going on in the world. So we thought that maybe this could help some people to think about their own happiness or the contentment of their lives. Maybe there’s something that they could maybe find useful of the way we Finns think about things and the way we live. That’s why we wanted to showcase this Finnish way of happiness to the world.
We have received thousands and thousands of applications. We’re actually quite surprised and thankful of the big number of applications and interest that people have been showing. So it seems like there was a need for this kind of campaign as well. Right now, our team in Helsinki, they are going through all the applications coming from all over the world and evaluating. Then they have this really, really difficult task of selecting 10 persons that will participate in the master class. It will not be easy.
[00:09:16] PF: Let me ask you. How do you go from thousands of entrants to get it down to 10? I mean, what are some of the things that they’ll be looking for to see who’s going to be ideal for this master class?
[00:09:28] HM: Yes. That’s – I am not –
[00:09:29] PF: I wouldn’t want their job. I’ll just say.
[00:09:31] HM: Neither do I. I’m not part of that team that is choosing. But the idea was there that we’re expecting everyone who seriously wants to come to Finland, also participate in that challenge. That was also described in the criteria of this selection. Then the idea is that just the most interesting and insightful application videos will probably stand out best. Then we will make the selection from those persons who have sent the most insightful videos to us.
[00:10:05] PF: Then they’re going to go to Finland in what month?
[00:10:10] HM: In June. In June.
[00:10:11] PF: In June?
[00:10:12] HM: Yes.
[00:10:13] PF: So talk to me about what is the master class going to be like? Because you’ve got like four different themes that you’re working with, and you have, I think, eight different coaches. Can you just talk about what these people are going to experience and learn?
[00:10:26] HM: The themes that you mentioned, the four different themes, and nature and fitness lifestyle, then health and balance, food and well-being, and designing everyday life. So there will be sessions with those coaches going on discussing those themes. But not only just discussing, they’re actually experiencing.
Because the location where this master class is taking place is in the most beautiful area of Finnish Lakeland near Lake Saimaa, which is one of the biggest lakes in Europe, they will have all the opportunities to test and try these nature activities that we have available and also, of course, the Finnish sauna.
[00:11:05] PF: With the coaches, do they also go through some sort of selection process? I mean, did you have a lot of people that signed up that said, “Oh, my gosh. We want to be part of this, and we want to coach.”?
[00:11:16] HM: Yes. Well, Finland is a small country. So, of course, we know all the – well, not maybe all of them. But we know well people who we think that could be the most potential coaches for this type of master class environment. But I think there will be some selection process involved with this one as well. The idea is to find inspiring individuals who have a good understanding of working with international participants, and then also showcasing how and what we do in Finland to support the content lifestyle that creates the happiness.
[00:11:52] PF: So what does it tell you that you got thousands of responses? Like, one, where you expecting that kind of a response, that big of a response? Then what did it tell you that so many people want to participate?
[00:12:04] HM: I think this topic resonates with a lot of people because we didn’t expect that it would get sufficient amount of applications. But, of course, this number that we have now been seeing is overwhelming us and in a positive way. We are very thankful about all these applications, but I think this topic resonates. I mean, we have all been through some tough times, and the world is quite a stressful place nowadays. So trying to find the ways how to sort of find your own calmness in midst of all this going on. I think people are really interested in these things.
[00:12:41] PF: I would agree with you on that. Do you think having the master class in Finland – you had already mentioned that because Finland has been named the happiest country in the world multiple times that people in Finland are starting to think, “Oh, maybe we’ve taken things for granted.” Do you think that having the master class there will further make people in Finland go, “Okay, maybe I need to think more about what makes me happy.”? Do you think it’ll help build even more happiness in the country?
[00:13:08] HM: I hope so. I hope so. Let’s see.
[00:13:12] PF: You’re going to find out. So now, you were also talking about doing an online version of the class. Do you know yet how that would go?
[00:13:21] HM: I think it will be around the same themes. Probably I would guess that we would be then working together with the same coaches that will be working with the participants on this June master class. But like I said, that’s also under planning right now. But the idea is that we would be launching that online version of this master class in the fall, after the summer.
[00:13:41] PF: That’s really amazing. From living in Finland and also living in the US, what do you think the greatest thing that Finland has to teach the rest of the world about happiness is?
[00:13:51] HM: First of all, I think we are very like – early, I think I mentioned we are very down-to-earth people, and we are maybe not in front of things that are too complicated. Sometimes, especially here in New York City, I observe things that I feel that could be done in a much more simple way. I think that’s one very practical thing, very practical difference. That sometimes frustrates me. It doesn’t make me happy when things are too complicated. So I feel that maybe we Finns have found in some ways, at least, the way to do things in a little bit more simple, less complicated way. Of course, I’m just talking at a general level. So there are many details. But some things, yes, I think we have that.
Then another thing is that we have this very, very close connection with the nature, like I mentioned earlier. It is not something that I have observed anywhere else. It is so rooted in our lifestyle, and it is such a big part of our happiness. People talk about forest bathing. For us, it’s just a very normal part of our life. We go and take a walk in the forest daily because we know that it’s good for our blood pressure, and it’s good for our stress. We don’t make too much fuss about it. It’s just part of the lifestyle that we have.
[00:15:15] PF: That’s interesting. So most of Finland is very nature-based you’re saying.
[00:15:19] HM: Yes, yes. Over 70% of our country is covered with forest. Then we have 188,000 lakes. So there is a lot of water. Plus, we have one of the largest archipelagos in the world with 70,000 islands on our coastal archipelago. Then in the north, we have the Arctic nature in Lapland in the northern part of the country. So we have a huge variety of different type of natural sceneries, 41 national parks. On top of 41 national parks, which are all free to use.
We also have the Everyman’s Right, which means freedom to roam, which means that you can go walking, hiking, foraging berries, or fishing with a rod, any land, even privately-owned lands. You don’t need a permission for that. You can even camp on privately-owned lands, as long as you obey with the rules. Not having open fire or not going too close to private homes. So you can access the nature anywhere and everywhere in Finland.
[00:16:19] PF: It also gets quite cold there. So how do you work in your nature, even when it’s really cool? Because I know – okay, I’m in the South, in the US. When it gets cold, we all go inside, and we don’t leave our house. You get much colder in Finland. So how do you work in nature as part of your daily routine when it is that cold?
[00:16:42] HM: We have this saying in Finland that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. So the weather is not an issue. I observed the same here in New York that when the weather is bad, nobody’s moving anywhere. Like why? I mean, what’s going on? You just put on weatherproof clothes, and then you go on about your life and good practical shoes. Of course, we don’t always look the sexiest when we have these jackets and the weatherproof shoes. But it keeps us warm, and it allows us to continue our lives, even if the weather is not so nice.
We don’t really – because we’re so used to having the four seasons. Weather is what it is. So we don’t really spend too much time on thinking about the weather because we can’t change it. It’s one of those things that you can’t change. If you just continue thinking about things that you can’t change, then you might be really unhappy as well.
[00:17:39] PF: Exactly. Yes. That’ll be frustrating. So do you feel like your country is really proud of being named happiest country in the world? Has that helped elevate your self-esteem as a country? Or what has it done throughout the nation?
[00:17:54] HM: I think now, finally, after the sixth year or maybe even already during the pandemic when we got the ranking as well of Finnish people, we’re starting to see and think that, yes, there must be something creative about our country as we are getting this ranking. Like I said, we are very humble people. We don’t really make much fuss about it. Maybe it just has caused us to think a little bit more about these things that, okay, maybe we shouldn’t take everything so for granted. But, yes, like I said, we’re very down-to-earth.
[00:18:27] PF: Yes. Does it amuse the country that reporters and newspapers are asking, calling people like yourselves? I saw the New York Times had just done a big story where they interviewed like six different people. They’re trying to figure out like, “Why are you so happy?” What is that like from your standpoint?
[00:18:44] HM: I’ve been doing actually also quite many interviews now since we got the ranking and since we launched the master class campaign. I enjoy talking about my country and sharing this. Actually, I am also myself kind of learning to think about this in a different way because when I get questions that I never thought myself, again, things that I have taken for granted, I’ve also started to appreciate much more my country, understanding, okay, we have some things that are not just everyday life for other people.
[00:19:17] PF: That’s great. So at the end of this master class that people come and participate in, what do you hope they walk away with? What do you hope happens as a result of them being in Finland and experiencing that?
[00:19:30] HM: Yes. I think that’s a really interesting question as well because, of course, we are all very different people, and happiness means also different things to everybody. I mean, for us Finns, spending time in the nature is a big source of happiness. But it might not be the case for some other person, although I think that people who don’t feel that would probably not apply to the master class and would not come to Finland. So I think most of the people are have applied and those who will be selected would be people who would be appreciating that kind of lifestyle.
But I hope that they maybe have found some additional skills, how to cope with the everyday life, how to cope with the stress, and hopefully also find their own way, depending on, of course, where they live and what opportunities they have, their access to nature, and trying to utilize that as part of a stress-relieving factor. But, hopefully, they will find that and also may be thinking about instead of not so much talking about how happy you have to be, but how content can you be with your life.
[00:20:38] PF: That’s beautiful. Well, Heli, thank you so much for coming on and talking about this. I’m excited to see what happens. I want to stay in touch with you and follow up on this because I’m really excited to see where this goes.
[00:20:49] HM: Sounds great. Thank you for inviting me.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:20:54] PF: That was Heli Mende, talking about why Finland is the happiest country on the planet. We’ll be talking more about their happiness master class in the future. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Finland and happiness, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.