Finland, known as the happiest country in the world, has a secret that the rest of the globe has neglected to discover and eagerly pursue. It’s a staple of Finnish culture — a way of being — and it’s incorporated into everyday life in unique ways. So, what’s this hidden gem? The Finnish sauna. By Latifah Al-Hazza
“The sauna is the best place to relax, relieve stress, and heal — the perfect way to slow down,” says Sari Hey, public relations and media manager for Visit Finland. “Combined with proximity to nature, as Finns love to take a refreshing dip in the lake or sea after the sauna year-round, saunas are an integral part of the secret to Finnish happiness.”
People of Finland are the happiest because of the saunas
With a population of 5.5 million, Finland is home to 3.3 million saunas. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s saunas are located in Finland. You can find sauna cars on Ferris wheels, saunas in conference rooms, floating sauna rafts, sauna buses, and even a sauna inside of a Burger King. Family homes have saunas as well — ones so high-tech that they can be switched on from a phone on the way home from work. Saunas are such an integral part of Finnish lives that in 2020 it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
By definition, a sauna is a Finnish steam bath where water is thrown on hot stones. Thousands of years ago, Finnish saunas were just holes in the ground. As they evolved, they became a small building with three walls, an entrance, an animal-hide roof, and rocks by a fire. Today, there are three main types of saunas: wooden, electric, and smoke. The most common types are electric and wooden, but a smoke sauna — the oldest — is the most admired among Finns.
A wooden sauna maintains heat by burning wood inside a stove. Steam is created by throwing rocks on water (löyly in Finnish), which are on top of a stove. If you’re not experienced, only throw a bit of water at a time. An electric sauna, meanwhile, is commonly found in private homes and apartments. They’re easy to use, safe, and pretty self-explanatory. You throw löyly in an electric sauna the same way you would in a wooden one. The smoke sauna takes several hours (about six) to warm up. Wood burns inside and smoke fills the room as there’s no chimney. I find these difficult to endure, but practice makes perfect. A tip for all types of saunas: If you want to reach the same mental space as the Finns around you, calm down.
There are also unique saunas throughout the country. Right in the heart of the capital lies SkySauna, situated inside a Ferris wheel car. It fits up to five passengers and offers incredible views of Helsinki. Each rotation is about seven minutes long. Or, eat your Whopper and have your relaxation time, too, inside of Burger King’s sauna for rent. It fits 15 people and has TVs and video games for entertainment. Operating in the mountains near the Swedish border is the sauna gondola. After an intense day of skiing, visitors are allotted three 20-minute rides with breathtaking views of Lapland. Sauna rafts (or Saunalautta, meaning a houseboat with a sauna) float around a lake, and some even have a terrace and hot tub.
And lest we overlook the sauna bus, which comes with a karaoke machine so you can sweat and sing. Even the Finnish Parliament holds informal meetings in their own sauna. The thought process behind this is that when business suits are removed, leaving nothing but bare skin and swimsuits, workplace hierarchies melt away (no pun intended) and everyone is equal.
Believe it or not, there’s an etiquette to saunas in Finland. The phrase is, “löyly, heat, break, and repeat.” In other words; sauna, cool off, and repeat. Each session is usually five to 20 minutes, depending on how much heat you can take. Often, the cooling-off is done by jumping into freezing water. Research shows that the intense heat followed by sudden cold provides a rush of endorphins. After a swim, I felt extremely relaxed, yet energetic and cheerful. Be aware that there are also risks involved, especially for those who suffer from cardiovascular issues.
Sweating in a sauna is known to cleanse your body of toxins, while the heat reduces muscle pain and increases sleep quality. The main benefits of a sauna visit include relaxation and stress relief.
Important rituals can also be incorporated into the Finnish sauna experience. For example, you can use vihta or vasta — a bundle of fresh birch twigs — to whip yourself. Drizzle it with essential oils first. Locals believe that it’s really good for your skin.
In public mixed-gender saunas, especially smoke saunas, bathing suits are required. In those that are separated, however, birthday suit attire is acceptable. (I recommend bringing a towel to sit on in either type.)
Although saunas haven’t always been used as a steam bath, they’ve always been central to Finland’s identity. Saunas were typically constructed before one’s home was even built. Therefore, the entire family spent time in this room while waiting for the completion of their house.
Reminiscing on a memorable childhood sauna experience, Hey recounts, “My earliest memory is probably from the time when I was two or three years old. I remember the old wooden sauna with dim lights, scents of wooden smoke and fresh birch, and the amazing feeling of playing in a small child’s bath placed on the floor and filled with warm water. I also remember the comfort of the huge towel I was wrapped in afterwards and drinking bubbly lemonade as a post-sauna treat”.
Throughout time, saunas were a place of childbirth and where the deceased were washed before burial (they were thought of as the entry and exit point to and from the world), a place for curing meat, cooking, and healing the sick. Traditionally, saunas were regarded as the cleanest place to be.
“Sauna is one of the few — if not the only — Finnish words known worldwide,” says Hey. Finland has literally put the term sauna in the dictionary and into mainstream conversation.