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Feeling down? Welcome to the ‘happy place’ of the happiest people in the world

Now this is a spa — the Lake Spa at the Järvisydän Nature Hotel, open to day visitors, offers five pools and six saunas.Diane Bair

For the sixth year in a row, Finland was named the happiest place in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. The folks at Finland’s tourism office have embraced their role as happiness experts, inviting applicants to Finland’s Lakeland region last June for a Masterclass of Happiness, and now offering a free online course in how to be happy the Finnish way.

What makes Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants so joyful? The short version, according to the Visit Finland crew, involves four elements: nature, lifestyle, food, and sustainability.

Sounds good, but it reads like the copy in a Canyon Ranch brochure. So, we decided to see for ourselves, by visiting a place that’s surely the happiest place in the happiest country: Lakeland, a.k.a. eastern Finland’s lake district, where Finns go to relax and have a good time. We’d mingle with Finns in their happy zone and try to figure out the real secret to Finnish joie de vivre, not the PR-approved version. And perhaps find an answer to that burning, hot-as-a-sauna question: Is there any way to replicate Finnish joy at home?

Want your own hot tub and in-room sauna? New properties are popping up on Lake Saimaa, offering the ultimate Finnish experience. This is an Elsanranta Saimaa villa at Sahanlahti Resort. They also offer more basic digs.Diane Bair

No. 1 secret to Finnish happiness: saunas

We sit in our cars. The Finns sit in saunas. “Saunas are meditation for us. We go several times a week,” says Sami Himanen, a musician, teacher, and hired driver. There are 3 million saunas in Finland. Many families have more than one. These might include a smoke sauna that takes 12 hours to heat (you heat the wooden shack, release the smoke, and then go in.) Then there’s the traditional wood-burning sauna, where you fill a bucket with lake water to pour on a pile of rocks to create steam; and electric saunas, found inside many homes. And that’s not including the ice sauna, with walls made of ice. People settle into the sauna and chill (as in, get as hot as they can tolerate), for anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours.


Whichever you choose, there’s a protocol to follow. “It’s the ritual that centers you,” says Minna Gurney of Visit Lake Saimaa ( Back in the day, women gave birth in saunas, and a deceased person would get a final wash in a sauna. Today, some saunas are used for curing meats. (You’ve never had salmon until you’ve had it smoked on alder wood in a Finnish sauna.) Plus, every sauna has a resident elf, Gurney says. “People leave treats for elves in front of saunas.” And, yes, it is typically a naked experience that includes families, extended families, and friends. Some saunas are segregated by gender. After the sauna, you jump into the lake.


Try it here: The Järvisydän Nature Hotel & Spa Resort ( on Lake Saimaa dates back to 1658. Their Lake Spa (day pass $35) is a stunner. Natural rocks and foliage add a “Bachelor in Paradise” vibe to the oasis of five pools and six saunas, plus lounges and a bar. The spa is coed, so guests wear swimsuits.

Let’s hear it for lake life

“Lakeland” is no exaggeration: The lake district comprises half of Finland. The country’s 130,000-plus square miles (just slightly smaller than Montana), encompass 187,000 lakes. The biggie, Lake Saimaa (“Sy-mah”) is the fourth largest lake in Europe, a series of connected bodies of freshwater with more than 14,000 islands and an 8,513-mile shoreline.


If the Finns didn’t invent cottage-core, they could have. About one-fifth of them own a cottage, or mökki, and the rest rent or borrow one. They spend the summer (and often, the winter) at these countryside homes, barbecuing, swimming, and enjoying nature. In winter, it’s all about ice skating on an 18-kilometer trail on the frozen lake, swimming (in a hole cut in the ice), ice fishing, even ice golf. (Did we mention Finns are a sporty people?) Some cottages are fancy, with modern amenities; others are basically wooden huts. The essence of cottage life, called mökkielämä, is slow living. Over and over again, Finns told us that simple pleasures like mushroom foraging and berry picking make them happy.

And, thanks to a concept called “Everyman’s Rights,” “you can basically pick mushrooms and berries in anybody’s forest legally,” says Remi Trémouille, chef/owner of Solitary restaurant at adults-only Kuru Resort. “Nature is meant for everybody.” To any New Englander who’s ever encountered a glorious stretch of “private” beach, that’s pretty incredible.

Try it here: Do cottage life the way the Finns do. In Puumala, family-owned Okkola Holiday Cottages (; from $104) offers 17 peaceful, private rental cottages, with kitchens, saunas, and rowboats, sleeping four to six. For a more resort-like experience, pick one of the chic lakeside villas at Kuru Resort (from $368;, where the Masterclass of Happiness was based. Settle into one of the Elsanranta Saimaa Villas at Sahanlahti Resort (; from $64 for simple lodgings to $466 for villas) and you’ll never want to leave; villa amenities include water-view hot tubs and in-room saunas.


A boat trip in the lake at Linnansaari National Park is wonderful in summer and fall; in winter, this area transforms into an ice skating trail.Diane Bair

Food, glorious (foraged) food

In Finland, “We use good products and make clean, healthy food. There’s no way you could have burgers and fries for lunch in a Finnish school!,” says chef Remi. Ouch. In most homes, traditional foods like porridge and cabbage stews are standbys. Frequent menu items include potatoes, lingonberries, reindeer, bear, moose, and fish. “It’s simply this — we use what we have, whether it’s rhubarb from the backyard or crayfish from the lake,” he says. To good effect: The Saimaa region will be honored as the international European Region of Gastronomy in 2024.

A six-course dinner at Solitary is a culinary adventure. The menu changes nightly, depending on what chef Remi and his network have caught, hunted, or foraged. “Nearly 100 percent of what we use is local — flours, berries, mushrooms, meat, and fish,” he says. That might include a candied pinecone or a currant leaf ice cream bar. Or grilled beaver. Or smoky tar (yes, tar) bites for dessert.

That said, food isn’t always a serious topic. In a visit to Market Square in the lively lakeside town of Savonlinna, we tried lörtsy, a hand-held pastry filled with meat and rice or (in the sweet version) fruit jam. Later, in Puumala, we learned how to make Karelian pies, a traditional pastry made with rye flour, filled with rice porridge, and served with egg butter. A festival of carbs, for sure, but delicious.


Try it here: Book dinner at Solitary (six courses, $85; with wine, $98; and sample a top chef’s take on marrying local ingredients with exotic flavors. Learn how to make Karelian pie with owner Paula Okkola in the beehive oven at Okkola Holiday Cottages ($53;

Karaoke and ballroom dancing?

With a reputation for being introverted, we were surprised to learn that Finns love karaoke — even a member of Parliament turned up at a popular fireside restaurant for wood-smoked salmon and a karaoke session. Old-school dances like the waltz and tango are also very popular; people go to open-air dance pavilions, “and the old-time rules still apply, with women on one side, men on the other,” said Minna Gurney. “It’s very sweet and old-fashioned.”

Give her a cabin in the woods, a lake, and the means to start a fire and Pirjo Koponen — like many Finns — is happy indeed. The simple life rules here. “We’re happy with what we have,” she says.Diane Bair

The simple life

Over and over again, Finns told us they were content with their lives. “We’re not exuberant like Americans, we’re more of a ‘quiet happy’!” Himanen, the musician/teacher/driver said. Of course, there are external factors at play, like a strong social safety net and good (free) education, but here, “You don’t have to have the biggest car or the most expensive house to be happy.” What you do need: “To be close to the forest, the sea, and nature,” Himanen said.

Pirjo Koponen, a wilderness and nature guide, echoed those sentiments on a hike within Linnansaari National Park. An investment banker for 17 years, she looked back on her childhood and realized that being in nature made her happiest. She pivoted and became a professional guide. “We have so many lakes and woods around us — we are very lucky,” she said. Maybe that’s why Finns are happy, she reflected. “We’re happy with what we have — the simple life. Maybe happiness is this: wanting what you have.”

For the online class on happiness, visit For information on Finland, go to For more about Lake Saimaa, a UNESCO Global Geopark, see

Happy as a Finn

So — what happiness lessons might we borrow from the Finns? Some thoughts:

Relaxing in a hot sauna seems like a great start. (Who’s got one? Want company?) Renting a cabin on a lake is a doable vacation option in New England — and a great base to ponder what “the simple life” means to you, and the concept of “wanting what you have” as the basis for contentment. Spending more time in nature, even in winter? That’s an easy one — there are more than 150 state parks in Massachusetts alone, ideal for exploring in any season. Or start close to home, with a gentle walk in the leafiest place you can find. (We’ll leave the ice-water swimming to the hearty Finns and the L Street Brownies!) Karaoke and ballroom dancing? Why not. Eating more local foods? A worthy goal — plus, forage-based restaurants are starting to pop up around here. But we’d politely decline the tar gummies.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at