Silence, saunas and snow: Unlocking the secrets of Nordic wellbeing

Landscape of a snow-covered forest and lake with a woman wearing a blue swimsuit lowering herself into water

Writer Melanie Dower has worked out why Finland ranks highly in the wellness stakes, as she thrives on a lifestyle that embraces stillness, the beauty of forests in freezing weather, and a healthy dose of self-reliance.

I still remember where I was when my husband came home and presented the idea to me.

As I sat up reading in bed to keep warm on a cold Auckland day, he stood near my feet, hands spread wide like a gameshow host making me an offer too good to refuse. “How about moving to Finland?” he asked.

Having moved home from Australia 20 months earlier, we planned to spend two years in New Zealand before moving overseas again to experience life in a different country. We hadn’t decided where that would be, and I had not even considered somewhere so far away – a place with almost a third of its land inside the Arctic Circle.

Unbeknown to me, Finland’s capital, Helsinki, had experienced something of a tech boom since the rise of Nokia, and become the go-to place for people pursuing a career in the mobile games industry. When my husband was offered a job there as a game artist, I took some persuading, but soon agreed to go. After several weeks of packing, selling, renting and shipping, it was time to farewell our families and make the 26-hour journey across the world. As we explored our new city, the first thing that struck me was the quiet.

During one of our first visits to the supermarket, I called out to my husband, “Hey, do we need milk?”, creating a sweeping effect as faces turned in my direction, seeking out the only person raising their voice in public.

While Finns are great company and don’t shy away from deep topics, they are also at ease with silence and consider it a natural part of conversation. This comfort with quiet extends itself to popular hobbies, with many spending their free time in the sanctuary of the forest. With 75 percent of the country covered in trees, and the concept of “everyman’s right” protecting people’s free movement across the land, this meditative space becomes even quieter in winter when the birds fly south and deep snow dampens any sound.

Another popular pastime is sauna, which many Finns indulge in weekly, as most homes either have their own or a shared one in their building. In the dimly lit heat, stories are shared in hushed tones, as people tend to sit side-by-side, without having to stare directly at anyone, allowing conversation to flow. I now relish this time, alone or with others, as I allow the previous week’s work and events to be quietly steamed away.

Living through the seasons

Without a car, we navigate the city on foot or by bike, no matter the weather, inspired by children at daycare who only play indoors once the mercury hits -16°C. To cancel plans based on the weather would mean being inside for an average of six months of the year, so we push through, dressing properly and spending time each day in our natural surroundings.

Being outdoors has given me a new appreciation of the seasonality of life, with each quarter of the year dramatically claiming its place on life’s stage.

Winter landscape of a city covered in snow with sun shining in the distance
IMAGE: GETTY

In winter, the sun sits low on the horizon, providing only dim light as it rises late in the morning and sets again in the early afternoon. In Lapland, the curtains are closed for just over 50 days, as the sun doesn’t rise at all during the period known as polar night. It’s during this time we find our bodies need more rest, and sleep comes easily each night.

By contrast, in summer the sun barely leaves us, gracing the sky for almost 24 hours a day. Often, we find ourselves sitting up until midnight before we realise how late it is, and rising fairly easily the next day around 5am. Fed by the sun, our bodies are more energised as they top up on much-needed vitamin D.

Bird's eye view of a Nordic city with sun shining at night
IMAGE: GETTY

The foods that grow locally help with this. Foraging is popular and chanterelles, the prized golden mushrooms that appear in late summer, are high in vitamin D. So are the fish from the surrounding waters, such as wild salmon, Baltic herring and Arctic char. Also in abundance for anyone to pick, are wild berries such as sea buckthorn and cloudberry, both an important source of vitamin C.

Grit and determination

As well as physical health, my mental health has also been enhanced by our new surroundings, although one change did not come easily. Growing up as the youngest of three children, I was used to being rescued when something became difficult or unpleasant and it didn’t take long to realise that wasn’t going to happen here on the streets of Helsinki.

One day, as I struggled with my stroller, its wheels stuck in the tram tracks, I wondered why no one stopped to help me or offer to carry my heavy bags. It was only after I learnt more about the Finns’ strong sense of self-reliance, that I started to wonder if these apparent snubs were actually an indication of people believing in my own ability to help myself.

While their Swedish neighbours are indulging in hygge, or winter cosiness, Finland’s national value is sisu, loosely defined as resilience or strength of character forged by an ability to withstand hardship. If I needed help, I’d have to ask for it, and then I found it was always given gladly.

This independent spirit is fostered in children from a young age in Finland, and while they don’t attend school until age seven, daycare and pre-school start building problem-solving skills early through play and by providing the right tools in a safe environment. From the age of three, our son was expected to pour his own milk, serve himself soup and rinse and stack his dishes when done.

This development of mental hardiness has certainly helped when I’ve been alone in sub-zero temperatures with only myself to count on, or during moments of deep homesickness, when the energy required to live in a society where I don’t speak the language feels too much. The flipside, however, is that when help is offered, it is genuine and intentional and I feel I can always trust a Finn with their word.

Like New Zealand, Finland continues to rate highly on many global lists that rank countries in terms of wellbeing and quality of life. Rated highly for public safety, lack of corruption, honesty and educational outcomes, Finland also ranked first in the 2020 World Happiness Report for the third year in a row.

While Finns are perhaps too humble to celebrate this accolade in public, a more accurate description could be that many people here feel content, generally seeming to be grateful for what they’ve got.

After the post-war recovery and relatively recent independence from Sweden and Russia, it seems Finns have learnt to quietly celebrate gifts such as clean air and drinking water and the years of peace they have recently enjoyed. And while I sometimes miss smiling at strangers or enjoying casual banter in shops, each time I leave and return to Finland, I too am grateful for what I’ve got.

View of a lake seen through leafy trees, with a single red cottage seen on the other side
IMAGE: GETTY

A guide to Nordic wellbeing

Learn to embrace stillness

Whether it’s during your daily commute, or a weekly meditation, take time for yourself to enjoy some quiet. Turn off the radio and let any lingering concerns from the previous week diminish as your mind takes advantage of the opportunity to clear itself. Honour this time and commit to it in your calendar, even if only for a few minutes each day.

Go outside every day

Not only will you move your body, but you’ll also be in touch with the seasonal changes in the natural world around you. Savour the delicious feeling of the first warm rays of sun on your face during spring or smell the rain as it cleans the streets. Just remember to dress well for the weather to truly enjoy it.

Live seasonally

Listen to your body as you move through each annual cycle of the earth. Rest when needed and rise early when you can. When possible, eat the fish that live in the waters that surround you and the native plants that contain vitamins and minerals needed to support a healthy life in your natural environment.

Honour your resilience

Often we find we are stronger than we think. Broaden your comfort zone by taking tiny steps each day in a brave new direction and notice when you thrive. Don’t do this at the expense of your own wellbeing though – it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Practise gratitude

Like the Finnish winter, life isn’t always easy, but often we can find at least one thing to be grateful for each day. Allowing yourself time to reflect and take stock of the good things you have can really help spark an inner glow.

Melanie Dower smiling, wearing blue outfit sitting on a couch holding a cup
Melanie Dower is a New Zealand writer, currently living in Finland, where she’s learnt to embrace silence, snow and sitting in the sauna. During Nordic winter she writes lifestyle stories from her apartment in Helsinki and during summer works from her tiny off-grid cabin set in the Finnish forest.

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