Reporter's notebook: Finland, happiness, saunas, NATO and the threat from Russia

HELSINKI − Juuso Raukola uses the sauna in his home every single day. So do his wife and children. Raukola's parents do the same with their sauna, in their house, his friends and work colleagues in theirs.

When Raukola and his two brothers met up last month in Finland's capital to catch up on the things brothers catch up on when they have not seen each other in a while, they did so in a quiet and unchanging place made of fragrant hard wood, warmed to 175 degrees and with easy access for a dip in the Baltic's icy waters.

"Sometimes Finnish people say saunas are like churches. I think that's a really strong word. Maybe too strong," said Raukola, 35, a mechanical engineer, as he or one of his brothers periodically stood up to pour water on hot stones that created a burst of steam that raised the heat and humidity levels in Helsinki's Kulttuurisauna.

"What I think they are trying to say is saunas are where Finnish people go to calm themselves; to reset their minds to the 'zero point'; to process what has happened to them in the daytime and to think about solutions."

Finland has a lot of saunas: an estimated 3 million for its population of 5 million, according to government figures. The Nordic country also routinely scores high in global surveys, indexes and reports that compare countries on various quality of life and good-governance metrics. Last month, Finland was crowned the happiest country in the world for the seventh year in a row by the United Nations’ World Happiness Report.

U.S. fails to crack top 20: 2024 World Happiness Report

But ask a Finn what makes them seemingly so content with life, and while they may jokingly attribute it to some rare combination of steam and heat, they are likely to say happiness just doesn't happen, it's made. Kind of.

"It's a bit of a mystery to me, but it's always our saunas that get mentioned in the reports about how happy we in Finland apparently are," said Teemu Tallberg, a professor of military sociology at Finland's National Defense University. He and other researchers say Finland's "consensus" society and general preparedness levels for achieving goals and managing unexpected crises − war, if it comes to it − may play the bigger role.

In fact, Frank Martela, a business professor at Finland's Aalto University, has said it's clear that Nordic countries such as Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway − which all regularly outperform other nations in international gauges that seek to measure how well societies function − are doing something right when it comes to engineering the conditions for happiness, even if "happiness" is a term that defies easy categorization.

Well-functioning democratic institutions, generous welfare services

All of these countries have well-functioning democratic institutions and relatively generous welfare services. They score well on surveys that track equality legislation, lack of corruption, social cohesion and trust, enjoy high levels of freedom, media literacy, human rights and access to public goods, and have low levels of income equality.

Martela has also noted that the U.N.'s World Happiness Report is actually based on one single question: "Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?"

After several thousand people answer this question about where they feel they are standing on the ladder, an average is calculated. The average is the happiness score for the given country. Of the more than 140 nations surveyed for the most recent happiness index, the U.S. landed in 23rd place, compared with 15th in 2023. A lot of Americans, in other words, placed themselves pretty far down the ladder compared with people in Finland.

Precisely why that is falls outside the scope of this story. But it may be worth pointing out, in an election year, that the movie "Civil War" just opened in the U.S. theaters. Its plot revolves around a U.S. government that has become a dystopian dictatorship and extremist militias who regularly commit war crimes.

Sharing an 833-mile border with Russia

Happiness in Finland, for historical reasons, may be closely linked to ideas about resilience, researchers say.

Finland became a full member of the NATO military alliance in April only last year, a direct reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But Finland has a long and strained relationship with its massive neighbor that has required it to adopt coping strategies, particularly military-related ones.

Not only does Finland share an 833-mile border with Russia, but in the 17th and 18th centuries various monarchs of the Russian Empire repeatedly tried to conquer Finland, which was then part of a Swedish kingdom.

After Sweden lost a war with Russia in 1809, Finland became a self-governing part of the Russian empire until 1917, when it declared its independence in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Then Finland fought off a Soviet invasion when Josef Stalin's Red Army attacked in 1939 in what's known as the Winter War.

Today, Finland maintains a widely supported system of military conscription, and 8 out of 10 Finns, surveys show, say they would be prepared to defend Finland themselves militarily in all situations.

Axel Hagelstam, director of research at Finland's National Emergency Supply Agency, the Nordic country's version of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that partly because of Finland's history and because it has "never taken off the table" the possibility of new conflict with Russia, Finland "built resilience" into many aspects of its security strategy. He believes that has a "calming effect" on Finnish society overall.

In practice, this resilience ranges from "household preparedness" workshops and classes for the public aimed at teaching cooking skills to keeping well-maintained bomb shelters. Finland's government keeps extremely close tabs on and has partnerships with about 1,500 private companies considered crucial for supply chains. It is currently developing models, for example, for what to do to keep grocery stories running if power is cut.

"Resilience doesn't happen in isolation," Hagelstam said.

Tuula Luoma, a civil defense planner for the city of Helsinki, said that "if a light is broken, we fix it today, not tomorrow" as she showed off a cavernous bomb shelter about 700 feet below an apartment block, one of dozens in Finland's capital that can withstand radiation and chemical attacks as well as collapsing buildings struck by conventional weapons. The bomb shelters in Helsinki have a collective capacity for 900,000 people for a population of 630,000. But the Finns are nothing if not thinkers-ahead.

The extra space was created for any tourists who might happen to get stuck in the city during a war.

'Weaponized use of migrants'

Still, Finland's preparedness for war or disaster doesn't mean everything in the country is rosy all the time.

Finland is trying to adopt temporary legislation to block asylum seekers from Russia after the Finnish border authority said more than 1,300 asylum seekers from nations including Yemen, Somalia and Syria entered Finland from Russia between August and December last year. About 900 of them entered in November alone. In comparison, the number before last August had averaged just one person a day.

One border police intelligence officer said Russia has "weaponized the use of migrants" on Finland's border by canceling their Russian claims and busing then to Finland's border. The officer, who did not want to be publicly identified because of the sensitive nature of his work, said the situation was likely to "worsen" in time.

As a consequence, Finland has closed its border with Russia, a move that has drawn pushback from humanitarian organizations who say denying asylum seekers access to a territory impinges on their human rights.

And some studies and reports have suggested that people of African descent consider Finland one of the most racist countries in the European Union, with nearly half of those surveyed experiencing racial harassment.

A sign for Helsinki's Kulttuurisauna is seen in Helsinki, Finland, on March 16, 2024.
A sign for Helsinki's Kulttuurisauna is seen in Helsinki, Finland, on March 16, 2024.

Guns laws, mental health and criminal responsibility in Finland have also been in the spotlight recently after a 12-year-old boy killed another child and injured two in a school shooting in a city north of Helsinki.

According to the Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based research project, Finland, which tightened its gun laws more than a decade ago in response to several school shootings, has the most guns per capita of any nation in the European Union at 32.4 per 100 inhabitants. It has the seventh-most in the world behind only the United States, Yemen, Montenegro, Serbia, Canada and Uruguay, according to the survey.

Raukola, the sauna enthusiast, said he appreciates how communication from Finland's authorities is "transparent" on key issues. He also said his visit last month to Helsinki's Kulttuurisauna with his brothers, intended to mark his older brother's birthday, "was just somewhere to go." He said it was not an "exceptional moment"; on the contrary, it was the most normal thing they could think of to do to have fun, relax and be happy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Finland, happiness, saunas, NATO and the threat from Russia