Escape to Happiness: We take an archipelago adventure to find out why Finland is the world’s happiest country
As Finland tops the rankings as the world’s happiest nation for the sixth consecutive year, we spend a week in the wilds of the country’s islands to discover what makes this destination so appealing
Heading out to explore Finland with Sidetracked Adventures, and one of their trusty wilderness guides, I’m one of five women ready to undertake a week of kayaking in the country’s archipelago.
While camping trips were a regular feature of my childhood holidays, faced with the prospect of six nights under canvas I’m unsure how much of its charm may have worn off in the intervening years. It transpires that my worries are unfounded and, by day two, I’ve ditched the tent entirely, in favour of waking up on an incredibly comfortable mattress of bracken in the fresh Finnish forest to the sound of lapping waves. I’ve not slept so well in months and, rather than needing a desperate dash for a strong caffeine fix, feel alert as I opt for a quick stretch and pick my way down to the shore for a morning swim instead.
Despite being the world’s largest, the Finnish archipelago itself is relatively unknown. A collection of more than 50,000 beautiful islands tucked away in the Baltic Sea, I discover the waters are surprisingly fresh and the tides gentle, making it an ideal destination for both kayaking novices and wild-swimming devotees.
From our kayaks, drifting along under the sun, we point out the odd bird or landmark as we paddle; but it’s the flora of Finland that captures our enthusiasm – and taste buds – when tiny black jewel-like fruit are revealed as an abundance of bilberries on an uninhabited island.
While much-reduced levels of caffeine quickly diminish my jitters, there’s little doubt that the drifting days with no alarms, no news, and no cables have an unmistakable impact too. With signal scarce and zero wifi, my phone becomes a glorified camera; even my much-used notes app is shelved in favour of an analogue notebook and pen. I’m astonished to discover how long each day feels when not rushing from one task to the next, reliant on calendar alerts, alarms, and timers to get me through.
FINLAND’S GREAT OUTDOORS
I struggle to recall when I last spent a whole day, let alone a week, not at the beck and call of my mobile. A sad but fundamental reality of modern life, I find that, without my trusty tech, I initially feel bereft. I catch myself reaching repeatedly for my phone, as though a quick dopamine hit and social media doom-scroll might be preferable to the literal island paradise I’m inhabiting. What am I hoping to find within the confines of the screen that could compete?
As I rediscover my senses, I mull over what a week away is doing to my brain. Colours seem brighter, I’m noticing new textures, scents and sounds, and generally feel more engaged with my surroundings as my threadbare concentration returns.
When not out on Finland’s water, our days are spent swimming, reading, taking sauna, or chatting among the group. The satisfaction of an hour spent sunning on a rock; the thrill of returning to printed maps to pick our route, skilfully managed by our knowledgeable wilderness guide Chris; and the slow process of jotting down my thoughts at the speed of my own handwriting, are all indulgences I forgo day to day. In our fast-paced world, a week off-grid feels like an impossibly indulgent luxury – a wonderful yet forbidden escape – and the sense of freedom far surpasses my expectations.
As the days progress, entirely self-sufficient, we find our rhythm, deciding on a whim how far to paddle, adjusting our course based on energy, morale and water-needs as the day unwinds. Coming across a sauna two days’ paddling from Helsinki, we discover how essential sauna culture is in Finland, which contains 1.8 saunas to every inhabitant. The reality of this statistic becomes apparent when, just days later, we stumble upon a second, miles from supposed civilisation.
A WILDER FINLAND
Given the remoteness of our journey, interactions with locals are few, but the lure of the sauna clearly beckons, and we bump into another group who’ve come in by boat. Arriving second, they wait their turn, leaving us to prepare logs and curl thin strips of bark; restocking what we’ve used in readiness for the next visitors, so the all-important sauna fire can be started upon arrival. Once the wood-fire has heated up, we embrace the ritual with glee; basking in the heat until we can’t bear the humidity before making a mad dash out of the door, across the rocks, and into the relief of the refreshing ocean.
At the end of a week in this inhabited wilderness, I understand why the Finns rank themselves in that happiness top spot. The enjoyment I found in my time there was not loud but rather a quiet contentment with life. Surrounded by nature, with an incredible infrastructure supporting outdoors pursuits, it’s easy to tune in to the natural world and have an awareness of self, of community and culture, and of the country’s innate beauty.
While my week in Finland’s wilderness may not have been life-changing in the sense of a grand adventure, it did push me out of my comfort zone and provide a renewed appreciation for the simple pleasures of life. I feel more alert, well-rested, and even my somewhat evasive attention has improved. As I head back to the daily grind, I vow to be more Finn – taking some of this tech-free time and quiet calm back into each day, striving for the contentment and tranquillity I found on the islands.